County to discuss relocating fairgrounds to raceway


In this file photo, the Alachua County Fairgrounds are shown.

Matt Benson / Correspondent
Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 8:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 8:31 p.m.

Alachua County will soon begin negotiations over relocating the Alachua County Fairgrounds to the Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, better known as the Gainesville Raceway.

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In this file photo, the Alachua County Fairgrounds are shown.

Matt Benson / Correspondent

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Alachua County Commission directed staff to begin negotiations with the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), which owns the raceway.

The NHRA was the sole applicant that responded to Alachua County's request for proposals for a new fairgrounds site.

County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said at Tuesday's meeting that it seems like a partnership between the county and NHRA could work very well.

The company provided several suggestions in its letter of interest to the county, but its proposal is only a starting point for negotiations, Acting County Manager Richard Drummond told commissioners at Tuesday's meeting.

He hopes to have a final proposal ready for the commission to consider in March or April.

Rich Schaefer, general manager of the raceway, said relocating the fairgrounds there would allow the NHRA to put more of its land to good use and give it the opportunity to occasionally use the county's new fairgrounds buildings for its own events.

The raceway's staff also has a vested interest in the community they live in, including the fairgrounds.

"I think both of us have a pretty good relationship," Schaefer said of the county and the NHRA. "And I believe the NHRA has a pretty good reputation around this community on running a good entertainment facility and bringing some tourism into the county."

The raceway facility, which comprises more than 750 acres, already has parking areas that can handle a single-day influx of more than 50,000 people, according to the letter of interest. It also has a self-contained water management system in place.

"That's why this is so attractive — because we don't have to spend a third of the budget building roads and parking and stormwater," Drummond said. "Every dollar that I don't have to spend on the ground, I can put into the buildings."

The county expects to spend about $14.5 million on the fairgrounds relocation project, he said. The new facility will include a livestock arena and exhibition hall, which could span 75,000 to 80,000 square feet and 45,000 to 50,000 square feet, respectively.

Before the commission decided to negotiate with the raceway, the county's primary proposal would set the fairgrounds on the Weseman Tract, a chunk of land near the current site that it bought in 2006 for about $2 million. If the county decides to relocate the fairgrounds at the raceway, it will continue to consider other possibilities for the Weseman Tract, Drummond said.

Given the infrastructure the raceway already has in place, the county could develop larger facilities for the fairgrounds there than on the Weseman Tract while spending the same amount of money, he said.

The county and NHRA will negotiate the operating plan for the fairgrounds. The company suggested a few possibilities in its letter of interest, but its preferred option listed was for the NHRA to maintain and operate it on behalf of the county while sharing the revenue from most of its events.

The company would cover basic maintenance expenses, while the county would handle major expenses like infrastructure problems. This seems to be the simplest way to maintain the facilities without getting bogged down in red tape, Schaefer said.

Drummond said the county is interested in discussing this possibility.

In its letter of interest, the company also requested the county develop a plan to create an access point from Waldo Road entering the property's east side.

Drummond said the creation of a new access point may not be a realistic request, but it is worth considering.

The county's consideration of a new fairgrounds location began in earnest in 2003 when the city of Gainesville and county collaborated on Plan East Gainesville, a special area plan that called for the relocation of the fairgrounds to another east Gainesville site and the redevelopment of the current site as a business park.

The county plans to develop the business park, which could include hotels, retail businesses and offices, after the fairgrounds is relocated.

Tim Giuliani, president of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the economic development opportunity in east Gainesville that the relocation of the fairgrounds would create by freeing up its current site to become a business park is an important aspect of the project.

"I think the county's heading in the right direction," he said. "We're focused on job creation, and to have our local government thinking along the same lines is great for our community."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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