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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 16:12

Budget cuts put fairgrounds in a bind, forcing county back to the table

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With a large loan payment looming and not enough money to pay it, the fairgrounds turned to Haywood commissioners this week to save it from foreclosure.

Commissioners voted Monday to purchase the fairgrounds facilities and apply for a 40-year U.S. Department of Agriculture loan of between $600,000 and $800,000 to pay off the outstanding debt and make improvements.

The fairgrounds board had counted on annual contributions from the county to cover loan payments on two new additions: a covered arena the size of a football field and a second indoor exhibition hall.

But the fairgrounds, along with all other nonprofits, lost all its funding when the county cut its budget after the recession struck.

“They more or less left us holding the bag,” said Skipper Russell, a farmer and president of the fairgrounds board.

The loan on two buildings totals roughly $337,000.

The county has already pumped $989,871 into the fairgrounds since 1999. Haywood owns the 25-acre property, but not the facilities on it, which include two large exhibition buildings, a livestock barn and a covered arena.

Since the 100 percent cut in its county funding, the fairgrounds has been limping along. It hasn’t been able to install restrooms, concession stands or bleachers at the arena, making it difficult to attract events to the 68,000 square foot venue.

“I think our board of commissioners have put them in a bad position,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who also serves on the fairgrounds board.

On Monday, the county agreed to be responsible for about $15,000 annually in property and liability insurance, as well as $25,000 to $40,000 in start-up costs the first year.

Haywood commissioners will also appoint a seven-member governing board to replace the now 27-member fairgrounds board, though a new advisory board will also be created.

Fairground revenues will pay for a full-time fairgrounds manager responsible for marketing, as well as maintenance and utilities. Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick has proposed that the revenues in excess of a certain amount should go toward the loan payment.

If the USDA loan is approved, it would likely carry debt payments of $40,000 per year — far less than what the county has contributed annually in the past.

In previous years, the county had devoted $150,000 annually to the fairgrounds.

“It’s just a Catch-22,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “With an incomplete fairgrounds, it’s difficult to attract the venues and events that would make the center profitable. But you can’t get the money to do that because you don’t have the events.”

Swanger said the board would face the same conundrum year after year unless commissioners made a decision to assist the fairgrounds. Most commissioners were quick to distinguish the fairgrounds from other nonprofits since the county owns the fairgrounds property.

They also stressed that the fairgrounds drives the local economy, with 55 to 60 events per year and monthly flea markets that bring 100 vendors to the venue.

“Don’t forget that money passes through our economy two or three times,” said Swanger. “It is part of the economic development engine for the county.”

Citizen Jonnie Cure remained unconvinced.

“I believe this is nowadays what we call a bailout,” said Cure, who accused the commissioners of once again using fuzzy math to justify their actions.

Ensley emphasized that the county would be paying far less annually with the 40-year loan than it had been in the past.

“I’m looking at that as a savings, whether that’s fuzzy math or not,” said Ensley.

Russell admitted he felt bad asking taxpayers to contribute to the fairgrounds when they’re struggling to make ends meet.

“I hate it, but there’s no other option available for it,” said Russell.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis reluctantly voted for the measure. He criticized the board for cutting funding in the first place and for not taking care of its properties and obligations.

“In the past, we haven’t done what we should have been doing to keep our facilities and our commitments up,” said Curtis. “As long as we keep doing that, we’re going to keep having situations like this.”

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