Fair debate goes round and round

• Expiring lease has officials looking at future of county fair and what it would cost to move it

by Jim Boyle


The decades-old question of if and when to move the Sherburne County Fairgrounds inched forward ever so slightly on May 7.

Or did it?

Members of the recently convened Sherburne County Fairgrounds Future Planning Task Force gave some direction at its second meeting but will be pressed to give more before a formal recommendation is made to the Sherburen County Board of Commissioners later in May or in June at the latest.

fair photo for page 1
The Sherburne County Fair Board is gearing up for another county fair this summer, but at the same time they are also examining the future of the fairgrounds in Elk River as the Sherburne County Agricultural Society’s 30-year lease comes up next May.

Steve Taylor, the Sherburne County administrator six months into a new job, knows he needs to come up with cost estimates to relocate and build a fairgrounds to an acceptable level in Becker.

Elk River Mayor John Dietz said it’s imperative to have cost estimates in hand before making such decisions.

“If it’s going to cost $3 million to build the buildings and you get $2 million for the land, is the county going to spend $1 million of the county taxpayer’s money to build them?

“I wouldn’t be willing to do that if I was on the county board.”

In addition to gathering cost estimates, Taylor is consulting with counties that have successfully moved a fair.

“I’m looking for lessons learned, if you will,” he told the Star News this week.

Taylor was curious to see if there was interest in following the lead of other counties in having more than one fair, but that was thwarted.

Taylor’s first task is developing a recommendation for the Sherburne County Board on whether to terminate or extend the lease the county has with the Sherburne County Agricultural Society for use of its property as the county fairgrounds. The current 30-year lease expires on May 31, 2015.


Fairgrounds presentation

Taylor and Amanda Larson, a planner for the county, presented a lengthy presentation recapping the task force’s first meeting in December and providing answers to a host of questions that surfaced at it.

The report looked at the utilization of the property, regional fair attendance and case studies, as well as a series of possible scenarios to be considered:

•One would be to extend the lease another five, 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years to keep the fair in Elk River or moved to an alternate Elk River location.

•The second would be to move it to Becker on land donated by the Cox family.

•The third would be to split the county fair into two so that the fair board would put on two fairs each year or alternate.

•A fourth option would be to collaborate with another county to look at the possibility of combining resources to offer a regional county fair.

The presentation stirred old arguments and reminded some at the table of previous work.

Sherburne County Commissioner Bruce Anderson said he was particularly interested in the findings of a previous feasibility study.

“I was unaware this was done,” he said.

At the conclusion of the presentation packed with summary data aimed at informing rather than persuading, circular discussions resumed.

The idea to host the fair in Elk River and a second in Becker was shot down by consensus of those with the task force. Deb Rydberg, the executive director of the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce, said developing a second fair to switch off with the Sherburne County Fair in Elk River could be the death of both fairs. The majority seemed to agree, but it wasn’t unanimous.

“If Morrison County can do it, why can’t we?” Sherburne County Commissioner John Reibel said.

The task force made little progress to narrow the other three options. It’s clear the idea of pulling the plug on one fair and inserting it elsewhere to start another fair is easier said than done.

“I’m not against the fair moving,” said Fair Board member Irene Kostreba. “I’m against the fair failing.”

She suggested crafting another 30-year lease with options to terminate it early.

Russell Kostreba said the uncertainty of the fair’s future is already having damaging effects.

“The fair suffers (from uncertainty),” he said. “You can’t market the current fair, you can’t market future fairs. That’s the biggest downfall of the fair for the past 10 years.”

The fairgrounds in Elk River need to be updated if the fair is to continue at its location, and modernization like the addition of bathrooms would remove one of the fair’s attendance detractors in having to use portable bathrooms.

County officials reiterated at the meeting they would like a business and marketing plan developed to determine the long-term sustainability of the fair.

Others suggested a lease of a few short years in length with options to renew at the end of it in one-year increments. The idea would be to set the wheels in motion for a move to Becker.

There’s already plenty of interest in the site by outside groups, including the Becker-Big Lake Hockey Association that wants to build an ice arena on the site that could be used year-round and during a county fair.

There’s also an interest by a Dayton man to lease space for a quarter-mile dirt race track to host racing events throughout the summer.

While this added interest in the Becker site is spurring discussion on, it is also complicating matters for some.

“Those initiatives are not going to help us figure out the length of a lease,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he is, however, planning to connect two County Board members with the University of Minnesota Extension Services to examine what the fair might look like in the future. Kostreba and Carol Iten, another fair board member, have agreed to participate in this endeavor.

The future of the fair — and its location — has been on agendas of the County Board and fair board for decades.

“I’m told this has been up for discussion for 31 years,” Taylor said. “Wow!”