The Benton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 on April 2 to accept a new master plan for the Benton County Fairgrounds that includes converting the 33,000-square-foot Benton Arena into an exhibition hall and building a new covered arena for rodeos, equestrian events and dog agility competitions.

While the plan has drawn sharp objections from members of the local horse and dog communities who rely on the dirt-floored Benton Arena as a practice and competition space, no members of the public turned out to speak either for or against the master plan.

Following the recommendation of a consulting firm hired by the Fair Board, the plan takes a phased approach to improvements based in part on their potential for revenue generation.

Among the first projects to be tackled would be upgrades to the auditorium building, including the addition of a commercial kitchen that could serve events throughout the fairgrounds; converting the Benton Arena into an exhibition hall; and building a covered arena on the site of the current open-air rodeo grounds.

Later projects could include:

• Demolishing the pony barns and livestock sheds and building a new livestock pavilion.

• Creating a new entry plaza.

• Building new restrooms and ticket booths.

• Enclosing the solar building.

• Creating a new building to house Oregon State University Extension Service offices.

• Creating a new shop and storage building.

• Improving site circulation routes and wayfinding signs.

The total estimated price tag for all these improvements runs to $30 million or more, but less than $1 million has been set aside in the county budget for the work.

The master plan is intended to provide a vision for the fairgrounds and set priorities as funding becomes available.

Part of that vision is a shift away from the traditional view of the fairgrounds as a place focused on agricultural and livestock-oriented pursuits toward a more modern view of the facility as a place for a wide variety of functions.

Last year, the Fair Board voted to approve a rebranding effort that includes a new name: the Benton County Event Center and Fairgrounds.

There’s a new logo that clearly emphasizes the “event center” part of the name, and a separate logo for the Benton County Fair & Rodeo. The shift is also reflected in the facility’s redesigned website, which has separate entry portals for the event center and the fair.

“We’re taking that step that a lot of fairgrounds have taken,” fairgrounds manager Lynne McKee told the commissioners, “leaving ‘fairgrounds’ out and going with ‘event center.’”

Commissioners expressed support for the master plan and its vision for modernizing and reorganizing the fairgrounds, which occupies 29 acres on the west side of Corvallis at 110 SW 53rd St.

Commissioner Xan Augerot said she was especially pleased with the document’s phased approach.

“I think that’s going to be a critical piece moving forward, thinking about how we move this forward and make it a reality,” she said.

County Administrator Joe Kerby called the plan “a good jumping-off point for the fairgrounds.”

After the meeting, McKee provided additional details on possible next steps.

At present, she said, there is $750,000 set aside in the county budget for fairgrounds improvements — enough to add a commercial kitchen in the auditorium, do architectural design work for the exhibition hall and covered arena and tackle some other relatively inexpensive projects.

Additional funding could come from a 3 percent countywide transient lodging tax under consideration that would generate an estimated $600,000 a year in revenue for the county. A final draft of that proposal is scheduled to go before the Board of Commissioners for a possible vote on April 16.

By state law, 70 percent of revenue from such a tax must go toward tourism-related projects, which could include fairgrounds improvements.

“My dream would be to use TLT (receipts) for debt service to be able to borrow money,” McKee said.

That could potentially pave the way for a $5 million project that might include the auditorium improvements, exhibition hall and covered arena, she said.

The rest of the to-do list, though, is likely in the much more distant future.

“All this is not going to happen under my watch,” McKee said. “But it helps to have a vision.”

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