Fairgrounds future: Officials to discuss possible move

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Gina Duwe
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

JANESVILLE--County board and fair officials plan to meet for the first time next month to discuss a proposal to move the Rock County 4-H Fair to a site in Evansville.

The stars aligned for a successful fair last month, when a strong lineup of acts and great weather helped the event top 102,700 in attendance and cover losses from last year, when attendance was about 77,500, Fair Board President Rob McConnell said.

This year's success re-ignited discussion about the prospect of moving the fair from its landlocked 18.5-acre site in Janesville to a bigger location.

“That's what everybody is saying—'Look at what we could do with more space,'” McConnell said.

Twenty-one events are judged before the fair, which isn't fair for those kids and represents a loss of revenue, he said.

That's where a site on Evansville's east side comes into the picture.

Fair in Evansville?

Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group, a nonprofit organization, is working on a  business plan and hopes to raise $16 million to $20 million to build a regional agricultural events and education center. The group last year bought more than 200 acres of vacant land at Highway 14 and County M in Evansville.

The fair could be hosted at the SWAG site. The fair board—the independent nonprofit that runs the fair—and the Rock County Board Agriculture and Extension Committee—which controls the county-owned fairgrounds—have been discussing the possibility for months. The three groups will have a joint meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10, for an “open dialogue” about what direction to take, McConnell said.

“I have no expectations. It's just getting things out on the table,” said McConnell, who also is a SWAG board member.

McConnell said he likes SWAG's concept of promoting youth education and agriculture. Whether people like it or not, he said, Rock County is no longer focused on manufacturing but on agriculture.

The future of the fairgrounds property would be in the hands of the county, which owns it.

“We're a partner,” McConnell said of the fair board, “so it's got to work out for everybody.”

Financial commitments and future land uses must be discussed, he said.

Ag and extension committee Chairman Richard Bostwick could not be reached for comment.

Committee member and county Supervisor Alan Sweeney requested the joint meeting and said he wants to hear from the fair board.

“At the end of the day, it's up to the fair board where it (the fair) is,” he said.

SWAG must meet financial commitments and possibly other benchmarks that  county officials would need to discuss, he said.

Sweeney said the Evansville location is not a problem for him, but it might be for other county board members, though he emphasized that the decision is up to the fair board.

The fairgrounds and its buildings are leased most weekends of the year, and many organizations that use the facilities “have a dog in that fight,” he said. “It's a complicated issue.” 

To his knowledge, McConnell said, no other potential sites are being considered. If everything moved ahead, it would be four to five years before the fair would move, and a lot depends on SWAG's plans, he said.

Fair revenue has been on a downward trend the last six to seven years, McConnell said, and this year was a fluke because of the great entertainment. Acts included Florida Georgia Line and Hunter Hayes, who held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on Billboard's Hot Country list the week of the fair.

“They boomed at the right time. I think it's going to be impossible to repeat,” he said.

The search for next year's fair acts likely starts next month.

The fairgrounds were a hot topic in 2004, when a study from Hurtado Consulting predicted the fair would face falling attendance and increasing decay if it continued at its current site. The study recommended spending $6 million to renovate the site or $20 million to move it.

Since that study, moving the fairgrounds to the county farm at highways 14 and 51 or a site in the town of La Prairie was discussed but did not materialize.

SWAG moving ahead

SWAG board members have been gathering feedback from more than 40 advisory council members representing ag and civic entities across southern Wisconsin as they write a more detailed business plan, SWAG President Mike Larson said.

“We're just optimistically plugging away and doing our due diligence in trying to find our strategic partners,” he said.

Their discussions always come back to the vision statement: “Ensuring a continuum of ag engagement focused on protecting the cultural and economic benefit of all aspects of agriculture.”

Phases of the project, which depend on fundraising, have not be decided. Plans call for:

--A 50,000-square-foot combined training and expo center featuring exhibit, classroom and catered event space.

--Blackhawk Technical College agribusiness campus

--Agricultural Discovery Center with interactive exhibits and displays

--Modern fairgrounds and livestock facilities catering to local and regional fairs, auctions and trade events

--40 acres of ancillary retail, hospitality and service amenities

The group's feasibility study found it could raise $16 million to $20 million, Larson said. It needs to do short-term fundraising before the full fundraising campaign could start, possibly in fall. Such a campaign could take 12 to 18 months, board member John Morning said.

Last week, the Evansville City Council approved a letter supporting the project. It also OK'd SWAG's request to spend nearly $20,000 for a traffic impact analysis through the tax incremental finance district that includes the site, City Administrator Dan Wietecha said. Traffic Analysis & Design of Cedarburg is doing the study.

While council members had favorable comments for the project, he said, they want to see the detailed business plan.

This story was revised Aug. 22, 2013 to reflect the following correction:


A story on Page 1A on Thursday listed the incorrect acreage for the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds in Janesville. The fairgrounds is 18.5 acres.

This story was revised Aug. 13, 2013, to reflect the following correction: - See more at: http://gazettextra.com/article/20130802/ARTICLES/130729760#sthash.Z9sG8UNT.dpuf
This story was revised Aug. 13, 2013, to reflect the following correction: - See more at: http://gazettextra.com/article/20130802/ARTICLES/130729760#sthash.Z9sG8UNT.dpuf
This story was revised Aug. 13, 2013, to reflect the following correction: - See more at: http://gazettextra.com/article/20130802/ARTICLES/130729760#sthash.Z9sG8UNT.dpuf

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