County fixing current fairgrounds while looking to build a new one


Published: Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.

As the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire returns to the county fairgrounds this weekend with its kings, queens, jousting knights, jugglers and a crowd expected to exceed 50,000, county government is in the midst of its own juggling act for the festival's venue.

Twelve years after county officials first deemed the buildings at the fairgrounds antiquated, piecemeal repairs continue to be made in order to keep those facilities safe and usable.

At the same time, the county is working on a plan to scale back the costs of a long-discussed new fairgrounds and get construction moving.

Acting County Manager Rick Drummond said that at this point, staff members are trying to strike a balance — spending enough to keep the current fairgrounds functional but not making a substantial investment in buildings they plan to raze in a few years.

"I'm still hoping we will start construction on this thing before I leave," Drummond, who will retire in August 2013, said of the future fairgrounds.

Back in 2010, county commissioners voted to make a long-term commitment of revenues from one cent of the tourist development tax to go toward a new fairgrounds that could host sporting events, concerts, trade shows and possibly conferences.

Tacked onto hotel, motel and campground stays, the county's bed tax stands at 5 cents on the dollar.

With one cent of the tourist development tax bringing in about $650,000 a year, the projection was that over 20 years it would generate only enough money to cover a little more than half the $22 million first phase included in a master plan.

So after the county spent $2 million in November 2006 to purchase property off Waldo Road for a new fairgrounds, the project has sat in limbo without sufficient money to break ground.

"I think there's a general understanding that we can't afford $22 million," Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said.

Drummond said the plan now in the works seeks to scale back that first phase to the range of $14 million. At a November County Commission meeting, Drummond said a planned auditorium/fieldhouse would shrink from 50,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet and an open-air livestock pavilion would go from a planned 50,000 square feet to 20,000-25,000 square feet.

Under that plan, Drummond said "we'd still have to bring additional money to the table" beyond tourist development tax monies, but far less than before.

Meanwhile, Parks Superintendent Robert Avery has presented Drummond with a long list of repairs needed at the current fairgrounds off Waldo and Northeast 39th Avenue.

Avery said a $10,000 upgrade of the pole barn's wiring and electrical system has been completed. Fourteen sets of circa-1984 bleachers, which had a combined capacity of about 1,400, also have been removed for safety reasons. Avery said the bleachers lacked railings and also had bent, twisted frames.

"They were just too dangerous and didn't meet current safety standards," he said.

The projected price for a smaller set of replacement bleachers is $49,000.

Other, more substantial repair and replacement jobs might not happen. Those include replacement of the circa-1970 lights in the exhibiton hall, which Avery projected would cost $107,000, and an estimated $96,000 replacement of the pole barn roof, which is plagued by leaks and rotting wood.

Drummond said those more significant jobs are not, at this time, moving ahead because of the plans for the new fairgrounds.

Pinkoson said he would like the fairgrounds project to move ahead in order to open up the current site for a long-planned business park, a prospect that has not yet drawn private sector interest.

"Everything is in limbo until we move the fairgrounds," he said. "If we want to see the economic hub where the current fairgrounds is, we have to move it."

Last year, Newberry came forward with and then dropped a proposal for the county to move tourism tax money to the purchase of the Canterbury Showplace equestrian center for its expansion into the future fairgrounds.

That proposal was the impetus for Drummond to look at scaling back the scope of the county's future fairgrounds in order to arrive at a financially feasible plan and keep the fairgrounds in east Gainesville.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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