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Our Views: All should hope agriculture complex takes root elsewhere in Rock County

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July 25, 2014

This week, as Rock County celebrates its farming roots at the 85th annual 4-H fair, a group's plans to promote and protect the agricultural industry got uprooted in Evansville.

In 2012, the private Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group plowed $2.17 million into buying 217 acres to build a complex on Evansville's east side. The group hopes to build a year-round agriculture discovery center, an expo area including an exhibition hall and a campus of classrooms to serve Blackhawk Technical College's ag education needs. Other possibilities include a grandstand, amphitheater/stage, equestrian facility, camping, a midway, livestock barns, and outdoor demonstration and show areas. SWAG hopes to lure the 4-H fair to its complex.

It's a lofty vision. A study, however, suggested these plans have potential to raise enough money, even if doing so takes longer than organizers hoped. In December, this group of Rock County farmers and agribusiness professionals announced it had hired local agriculture teacher Nicole Reese as executive director. This year, it started a campaign to raise $15 million for the complex's first phase.

On Monday, however, the city of Evansville backed away from SWAG's plans, saying it could not afford the more than $5.5 million in tax incremental financing the group requested.

This defeat cannot help fundraising. It's hard to imagine donors pledging when the site is uncertain.

Evansville's decision, however, doesn't mean this complex won't root elsewhere. The setback might be temporary, might sew seeds of opportunity for some other municipality and might even be good for SWAG's plans in the long run. After all, the Rock County 4-H Fair Board expressed reluctance to relocate the fairgrounds to Evansville because it's in the county's northwestern corner.

SWAG could resell the Evansville land. It's still being farmed, and the city has earmarked it for industrial development. Even last year, SWAG's leaders sounded willing to explore other locations as they got feedback.

In Friday's Gazette, President Mike Larson told reporter Gina Duwe that his group already has talked with other communities but declined to name them. Janesville and Beloit officials told Duwe they would welcome talks but have had no such discussions.

Beloit is near the county's southern border. The fair board likely favors a site in or around centrally located Janesville. For years, the board has debated moving the fairgrounds from the small, landlocked site on this city's east side. Larson emphasized that SWAG's complex doesn't hinge on luring the fairgrounds. Having the fairgrounds, however, would help generate more users.

SWAG's complex, though intriguing, always seemed grand and hard for average residents to picture. Could it generate enough visitors and revenue year-round to stay financially viable? Donors likely would want assurances.

Still, SWAG's leaders deserve credit for their passion and persistence. If they can regroup and plant their complex elsewhere with some other city as partner, they could play a big role in keeping agriculture a focal point of Rock County's economy for decades to come.



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