County determined to keep fairgrounds in eastern Alachua County


Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.

By Morgan Watkins

Staff writer

Alachua County is moving forward with its plan to relocate its fairgrounds, but the location is still up for grabs.

The county's current proposal would create a new fairgrounds on the Weseman Tract, a piece of land near the current site that the county purchased for about $2 million in 2006, Acting County Manager Richard Drummond said at a community-wide meeting attended by about 35 residents at the Alachua County Fairgrounds on Wednesday.

But the county may ultimately settle on a different location: the Gainesville Raceway, which also goes by the more formal name of Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.

The county began considering this option after raceway staff expressed interest in the project.

The raceway already has plenty of parking, while the Weseman Tract could only provide space for 3,000 spots at most, Drummond said.

Because the raceway is already developed, more money could be used for facilities, whereas the green land of the Weseman Tract would require considerable funding to prepare it for fairgrounds use.

Marihelen Wheeler, a Gainesville resident, said she prefers the raceway option.

"I just feel like there's no need to develop any more of our green spaces," she said, unless there are no alternatives.

Catrina Gainey, who lives near the raceway, said she was concerned about the lack of fire stations near the area.

When she raised this concern at the meeting, Drummond said he hadn't considered that and would look into it.

But Gainey said she thought relocating the fairgrounds there could bring in great amenities like sidewalks and better transportation.

"I think it would revitalize that area," she said.

The county is working on a Request for Proposal, or RFP, for possible properties and partners for the project. Alternative locations in the county's eastern sector will be considered.

Staff will present its plans to the County Commission at an Oct. 23 meeting.

The county will hopefully select a site and start concrete planning by spring 2013, Drummond said.

The current fairgrounds isn't bringing in enough tourists, and plans for the new site would aim to make it more attractive to such visitors, he said.

Consideration of an alternative fairgrounds site began in 2003, when the county and city of Gainesville collaborated on a special area plan called Plan East Gainesville, Drummond said.

The County Commission wants to redevelop the current fairgrounds as a business park, which could include offices, retail businesses and hotels.

While the area could become a promising commercial district, Drummond said, he also said he hasn't been approached by any interested businesses yet.

The county initially hoped to start work on the fairgrounds soon after buying the Weseman Tract in 2006, but then came the U.S. economic downturn in 2008.

The county has scaled back its fairgrounds plan for that land, an earlier version of which would have cost about $22 million, Drummond said. The current plan would cost about $14.5 million and would include a five-acre events lawn, about 1,500 parking spaces, a livestock arena, an exhibit hall and tent pads.

The project would be funded primarily by a bed tax, which brings in about $700,000 annually. People staying overnight in the county, whether at hotels, motels or camping sites, pay this 5 percent tax. Money from the county's general fund would also be used to a lesser degree.

The county is developing plans for the Resource Recovery Park next to the Weseman Tract that would provide a home for businesses that convert waste products like recycled glass into commercial items.

Sally Palmi, the county's solid waste director, said the park would save money because the county could bring its waste products to the park rather than ship much of it out of the area.

"It's closing a loop," she said.

Regardless of what site the county selects for the new fairgrounds, citizen input will be an important part of the process, Drummond said.

The county will hold further community-wide meetings, and he will recommend an oversight committee of residents be created to provide input throughout the planning process.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/morganwatkins26.

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