Task force still debating future fairgrounds site

Staff Writer
Ken Francis
About 20 people met at the Sherburne County Government Center last Wednesday to discuss the future site of the Sherburne County Fair.
It was the second meeting of the Fairgrounds Task Force - a committee formed late last year to make a recommendation about whether to keep the Fair at its current site in Elk River, or relocate the Fair to the Oak Savanna in Becker, the site donated by Bill and Margaret Cox.
After two hours of discussion, the group still didn’t have a consensus.
County Administrator Steve Taylor and HHS Planner Amanda Larson began the meeting with a brief Powerpoint presentation about both sites, current Fair attendance figures, financial statistics, weather history and a “to do” list the task force was directed to accomplish by the county board.
Some of the points for discussion were: 
* Acreage - the Elk River site is 29.57 acres. Becker site is 60 acres;
* The Elk River site can be sold for development, while the Becker site will never pay property taxes;
* The Fair made $2,994.74 in 2011, $4,449.25 in 2012 and lost $8,039.54 in 2013;
* The current lease between the county and the Agricultural Society for the fairgrounds expires May 31, 2015.
Taylor said it was the goal of the task force to come to a consensus because with the lease expiring, a decision had to be made to eliminate  uncertainty about the future. 
“There needs to be a feeling of confidence as to the future of the fair if it stays in Elk River. It’s really not fair to anyone - the uncertainty that stops us going for grants, investing money, time and resources into a fair that may or may not stay where it is,” he said. “And we’ve been talking about this for how many years? We need to make a decision.”
Past Decisions
Part of the presentation included a 2002 letter from the Fair Board indicating the Agricultural (Ag) Society wanted the county board to pursue moving the fairgrounds to Becker.
Also included was a 2007 resolution by the county commissioners stating they intended to relocate the fairgrounds to Becker by 2010.
Designs for the new site were drawn up by University of Minnesota architectural students in 2008 and reviewed by the board. Partly because of the economic downturn, and partly because a cost-effective solution was never agreed upon, the move never took place.
Then at a workshop last November, when Fair Board Members Irene and Roger Kostreba proposed adding another building at the Elk River site, the commissioners decided to establish a committee to look into the long-term use of the site. They also asked for a business plan that would show how the Fair could sustain itself at its current site.
Last Wednesday, Taylor said a number of people had suggestions about the future of the Fair. In addition to keeping the fairgrounds in Elk River or moving it to Becker, other proposals included finding a different site in Elk River, having two fairs at different locations every other year or collaborating with other counties for a combined Fair.
Taylor said he wasn’t sure what the answer was, but offered one scenario.
“Let’s say by the year 2020 this Fair will move to Becker. That allows people an understanding that there’s another five years here,” he said. “Perhaps the county fronts the money and when the (Elk River) land eventually sells, then you replenish the funds the county paid to relocate.”
Elk River Mayor John Dietz said the numbers might not work out, since the fairgrounds was assessed at $1.3 million and the buildings at $428,000.
“If you want to build a fair in Becker and you have to build all these buildings, say it costs $3 million and you sell the land in Elk River for $2 million,” he said. “Does that mean you’re willing to spend $1 million of county funds to move the fair? I wouldn’t be willing to do that if I was on the county board.”
Race Track
One of the reasons the commissioners wanted a business plan is to make sure the fair is profitable. Bill Loehr of Race, Inc. proposed building a race track on either site. He said Princeton has had a race track since 1956. He said it would draw people from all over the Midwest. 
“It brings people into the city,” he said. “They buy gas. They go eat and shop.”
Loehr presented his drawing of the fairgrounds site with a track included.  The Elk River site could accommodate a quarter-mile loop, he said. Loehr said the county could require that each organization that wanted to use the site could put up their own building and lease space.
Not everyone was convinced the track was a good idea, especially in Elk River near a residential area.
“You’d have to get permission from the county board and I think you’d have a pretty full room the day that you wanted to talk about that,” said Dietz. “There would be a lot of neighbors that had a lot to say.”
Ice Arena
Becker Mayor Lefty Kleis said the Becker-Big Lake Ice Arena Association had a detailed plan to locate an ice arena at the Becker site. He said there are numerous counties that have arenas on their fairground sites.
“I think that would be a staple for a fairgrounds. And that’s a nine-month operation. They have a business plan and it’s well thought out. They did their homework,” he said. 
 “We’ve got to look at the big picture. It depends if we want to keep the fair small or if we want to make it big. I’m advocating to make it big. An ice arena is a great start for a business plan.”
Barbara Burandt of the Elk River City Council said the location is important.
“I think you have to look at where the population is as opposed to a central location when trying to identify a site,” she said.
Brandt said Benton County Fairgrounds are close to St. Cloud. Carver County is near Waconia and Mille Lacs is in Princeton near bigger populations.
“Are people who are used to just driving five miles to the Fair going to drive 15?” she asked.
Kleis said Becker is just as close to a big population as Elk River.
“Attendance is not going to drop by moving it to Becker. We’re going to be centrally located. With 100,000-plus people in the St. Cloud area, they’re 18 miles from Becker. They’ll make that journey, but they’re not going to make the 38-mile journey to Elk River. And Foley is only 17 miles away.”
A Plan
The discussion shifted to the actual cost of buildings. No one had specific number on what it would cost to construct everything necessary at a county fairgrounds, and without those numbers, no one could make a recommendation.
“It doesn’t do any good to bring out all these scenarios if we can’t decide whether to keep it here or move it to Becker,” said Taylor. “What’s going to be there and what will it cost? I’ve heard a riding arena. I’ve heard indoor and outdoor. I’ve heard do we want water and sewer. What type of infrastructure? All these things have significant costs.”
Burandt said there are also costs to keep the current site up-to-date. But is there a desire to spend money to upgrade the property?
“There’s been this big question mark for so long that nobody is enhancing the Elk River site, and it shows,” she said. “We have to decide where we’re going to go and invest in that site. Right now we’re not and the current site is suffering from that.”
John Winkelman of the Ag Society agreed.
“You don’t want to stick $20,000 or $30,000 in Elk River to make one building look good when you can take that $30,000 and start relocating,” he said.
Irene Kostreba from the Fair Board said that has been the problem for years. “When you look at the attendance, part of that is because no one has wanted to invest because we didn’t know if we would stay or move somewhere else,” she said. “We need to know where we’re going.”
Taylor said he would try to get costs associated with buildings and infrastructure for the next meeting of the task force.
“At least I can get a range,” he said. “I’m willing to do that.”
In the meantime, some members of the task force will be meeting with the Extension Office Tourism Center to work on a business plan/feasibility study for the fairgrounds.
Fairgrounds Taskforce members are: Commissioner Bruce Anderson; Commissioner John Riebel; Steve Taylor, Administrator; Sarah Chur, 4H/Extension; Irene Kostreba, Ag Society; Russell Kostreba, Ag Society; Marion Salzmann, Ag Society; John Winkelman, Ag Society; Lefty Kleis, Mayor, City of Becker; Kelli Neu, City of Becker; Cal Portner, City of Elk River; Alan Peterson, District #4 Rep.; Debbi Rydberg, Elk River Chamber of Commerce; Barbara Burandt, Elk River City Council; John Dietz, Mayor, City of Elk River; Carole Iten, Fair Board; Roger Kostreba, Fair Board.


Greg F. Metzger

Sherburne County Information Technology Director Brian Kamman in the IT Department.

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