The Fairgrounds User Group held its 28th meeting in the past three years Tuesday night. The group is anxiously waiting on the outcome of a feasibility study of the fairgrounds and discussions between Lincoln County and the city of Merrill regarding transfer of ownership of the fairgrounds property.
Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki reported that he and City Administrator Dave Johnson have met with county representatives.
“Both parties came away feeling positive about it,” he said.
Johnson added that talks will continue.
The county has received three responses to its request for proposals on the feasibility study. The bid hasn’t been awarded yet, but the work is expected to be completed in October. The study will cover infrastructure needs and economic impact of the fairgrounds, among a host of other information.
“It will all be good information to have,” Johnson said. “We talked about it and it does everybody good to have it.”
While the feasibility study is ongoing, the city will continue to make plans for the fairgrounds. If and when the county agrees to transfer ownership, the city will be ready with a plan, Johnson said.
The grandstand at the fairgrounds was removed just prior to the 2012 Lincoln County Fair and is yet to be rebuilt. The county did receive $1.2 million in insurance money because the grandstand was razed due to substantial storm damage. To take over the fairgrounds, city officials have stipulated that the insurance money must come with the property so they can use it to build a new seating structure.
Regardless of who owns the fairgrounds, Johnson said it’s not likely a new seating structure can be built before next summer’s events.
“If I was a betting person, I’d bet we wouldn’t have a grandstand next year,” he said. “But if the city ends up with it, you will have one the following year.”
Bialecki indicated that once the seating issue is addressed, the city would look to turn the management of the fairgrounds over to a non-profit entity. The fairgrounds would not be supported by city tax dollars, he added.
“We want to get a management unit in place and get it making money to support itself,” Bialecki said.
During a Merrill City Plan Commission meeting Tuesday afternoon, concerns about the location of the new Lincoln County Humane Society shelter building were addressed. The Lincoln County Board in May voted to sell a 200-by-500 foot piece of land in the northeast corner of the fairgrounds to the Humane Society for construction of a new shelter building. The 200-by-300 foot lot currently leased by the Humane Society would revert back to the fairgrounds once the existing building is removed.
At the City Plan Commission meeting, it was decided to locate the new animal shelter as close to the corner of the property as possible. This would create the least interference with fairgrounds activities, Bialecki said.
Wisconsin River Pro Rodeo Association president Bryan Bloch said the rodeo had concerns with the original building plan that placed the shelter farther to the south.
The 2014 rodeo attracted a record crowd of over 3,000 and gained 27 contestants. Since the grandstand was demolished, the rodeo has had to rent bleachers for the event, which cuts into the amount the rodeo can give back to the community.
The fair has also suffered from the lack of a grandstand, said Dale Christiansen of the Lincoln County Fair Association. Crowds have dropped to the point that one of the permanent stands won’t be opening this year due to a loss of revenue.
The Fair Association will be trying some new things to get the community involved this year.
“We’ve chosen not to rent bleachers, we’ve found we couldn’t recoup the cost of bleachers,” Christiansen said. “We’re taking a smaller community festival approach to it.”