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Makeover planned for Benton fairgrounds
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Makeover planned for Benton fairgrounds

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A pair of consultants who have been working on a new master plan for the Benton County Fairgrounds outlined an ambitious vision for the facility’s future on Tuesday night — a future filled with major building upgrades, improved site circulation, potential market opportunities and new revenue streams.

But realizing that vision will require millions of dollars in capital investment as well as some significant changes in how the facility is used — changes that have drawn strong objections from user groups that like the way things are now.

At a public meeting attended by about 30 people in the fairgrounds auditorium, Rod Markin of Markin Consulting and Chip Overton of Keffer-Overton Fairground Planners gave a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the results of a market study, facility assessment and user survey that support their findings.

The consultants have been working on the project for several months on a $64,000 contract paid out of the fairgrounds budget. Earlier in the day, they gave similar presentations to the Benton County Board of Commissioners and members of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.

While the fairgrounds receives some money from the county budget, the facility has long been under pressure from the Board of Commissioners to be self-supporting. Attendance has generally been declining for years at its biggest annual event, the Benton County Fair & Rodeo, which often loses money. The county-owned facility also hosts hundreds of events each year that pay no rental fees, from 4-H Club activities to da Vinci Days and the Pastega Christmas Light Display.

The consultants noted that the fairgrounds’ biggest current revenue generator is RV rental fees and said that the site and facilities are in need of significant upgrades.

Key facilities factors identified in the report are:

• The fairgrounds’ largest indoor event space, the dirt-floored Benton Arena, is underutilized.

• The auditorium lacks a quality commercial kitchen and needs upgrading.

• The outdoor arena is unusable most of the year.

• The pony barns are unsafe and are deteriorating.

• The fairgrounds lacks a well-defined site circulation plan.

The proposed master plan outlines a number of improvements to address those issues.

The biggest and most controversial suggestion on the list is to convert the Benton Arena into a concrete-floored exhibition hall with the potential to attract a number of new events — and new revenue — to the fairgrounds. But that idea is deeply unpopular with some current users, most notably horse and dog groups who want to keep the dirt floor for their events.

Other major facilities proposals include:

• Expanding and remodeling the auditorium, including a new commercial kitchen.

• Covering and potentially enclosing the outdoor rodeo arena.

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

• Moving the fairgrounds office to the Carriage House.

• Remodeling the maintenance shop to convert it to an events barn.

• 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: $33 million to $35 million. Funding sources for most of those projects — and a timeline for completing them — have not yet been determined.

Markin noted that the master plan update is strictly conceptual in nature and there is still plenty of time to flesh out the details and even change direction on some of the particulars.

“This is a long-term roadmap. It’s going to take awhile to accomplish all that,” he told the audience.

“None of this is cast in stone.”

Several members of the audience asked pointed questions about projected revenue increases. The consultants estimated that the three projects with the biggest potential for generating new income would bring in between $70,000 and $162,000 a year more than the fairgrounds is making now, which some in the audience called a small number in comparison to estimated construction costs. And there were no revenue projections for other projects listed in the master plan.

“As a taxpayer in this county, I’d really like to understand what we’re getting for our investment,” one woman said. “It seems like your return on investment takes a long time.”

One of the most vocal critics of the plan to convert the Benton Arena into an exhibition hall has been Lynne Miller, an active member of the local equestrian community and longtime 4-H horse club leader.

After the meeting, she said she understands the need to increase revenues at the fairgrounds but worries about losing the arena for horse events. Despite talk of covering and possibly enclosing the outdoor arena, she’s afraid that project would take a backseat to the exhibition hall, potentially leaving local riding groups with no place to practice or compete for an extended period of time. Dog agility groups would also be affected.

“There’s got to be a way to do it without disenfranchising all these other groups that have supported the fairgrounds for decades,” Miller said.

But Carolyn Ashton, who oversees Benton County 4-H clubs for the OSU Extension Service, said she supports the plan. She noted that Benton County Administrator Joe Kerby has signaled support for fully enclosing the outdoor arena and said any disruption to 4-H horse events would be temporary.

“We would find other space,” Ashton said.

“I don’t know if we’re going to please everybody with whatever actions we come up with, but I am committed to finding alternative space in the interim.”

The consultants are still working on a final report to be presented to the Fair Board. From there it will go to the Board of Commissioners for potential adoption on April 2.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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