Possible fairgrounds move sparks passionate speeches

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Gina Duwe
Tuesday, September 10, 2013

JANESVILLE--Passionate pleas from long-time fair supporters over moving the county fair from Janesville to Evansville filled a sticky sale arena Monday night at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Moving from a central location to a corner of the county was a top concern expressed. Supporters of a move said no other community has offered a site while Janesville leaders have lacked support in keeping the event in the city.

More than a dozen people from the Rock County Fair Board and Association spoke at the county's Agriculture and Extension Committee meeting on a proposal to move the fair to a site on the east side of Evansville.

The county, which owns the fairgrounds, is in wait-and-see mode on the fair board, which runs the fair, ag committee Chairman Rich Bostwick said.

“It seems, as a group, they don't have a unified vision at this point,” he said of the fair board and association, which elects the fair board. “I just heard varying opinions that made me think they have to work things out more before they come up with some proposal.”

The fair board will continue discussions at its monthly meetings, fair board President Rob McConnell said. Many details have not been discussed with the non-profit group proposing the Evansville site.

That group, Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group, is working on a business plan and hopes to raise $16 million to $20 million to build a regional agricultural events and education center on more than 200 acres it owns in Evansville.

“There's a ton of negotiation to go through. It's still in a concept phase,” said McConnell, who also is a SWAG board member. He said he would not cast fair board votes related to SWAG.

County, fair and SWAG officials say they have not discussed costs. The city of Evansville approved paying for a traffic analysis study last month, when a SWAG member also said it could be looking for $4 million from the city through the existing TIF district, according to meeting minutes. 

Here's what some residents said:

--Les Arnold of the Rock County Pork Producers said his organization and the money it gives back to the community would suffer if the fairgrounds were not centrally located. He said his group was not against a new fairgrounds, but having it in Evansville would force some residents to make 60-mile round trips and be at the mercy of a private entity.

-- Fair board member Dean Peterson would love to see the fair stay in Janesville, but he said because of a lack of leadership in the county to find a new site, he would probably vote for the Evansville site.

“We need a new facility very, very badly,” he said.

Peterson cited the economic impact Jefferson County realizes by supporting its fairgrounds.

“I think our county board is really short-sighted” by saying they can't do anything to build a new facility, he said.

--Cathy Wendtland of Clinton voiced concerns about making teens travel across the county, which could result in them not making nightly curfews.

“That's a long commute for some of these kids who are just starting to drive,” she said.

She also worried “a lot” of 4-H clubs would dissolve because people wouldn't be able to afford to travel.

--Fair board member Bob Risseeuw said SWAG presents a “tremendous opportunity,” but a lot of unanswered questions weigh on him. If a move was to take place in the future, things need to be established so there are no guessing games.

--Fair board member Scott Davis said he appreciates SWAG's concept, but he would not vote to move the fair because it needs a central location.

“I think the risk of losing this facility and not having a place to go is huge,” he said.

--Fair board member Craig O'Leary said a new venue is needed, no other community has stepped forward, and they have never “heard a peep” from Janesville officials about the economic benefit the fair provides the city.

Instead, the city tickets parked cars.

“We're being harassed by the city, we're not welcome at all,” he said.

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