Fairgrounds Expo Center Considered

Lincoln County will be considering the construction of a new expo center at the fairgrounds to replace the grandstand which was demolished following storm damage last summer.
A concept for a 3,400-seat coliseum was presented Wednesday at a meeting of the Lincoln County Fairgrounds Marketing & Usage Committee. Agra Industries of Merrill volunteered to produce the concept and has also offered to make a contribution of money or services toward construction. Metal fabrication is the core of Agra’s business.
According to Tim Gruling of Agra Industries, a very rough cost estimate on the enclosed 325 x250 foot structure is in the $7 million range.
“In this coliseum there is a lot we can self-perform at our own facility, which would be a good means of keeping cost down,” Gruling said.
What Agra can’t provide is architectural design, which is likely to cost over $100,000, Gruling said.
The meeting was well attended with representation from the Lincoln County Board, Humane Society, VFW, Lincoln County Rodeo, Merrill Riders Club, Lincoln County Fair Association, City of Merrill, River District Foundation, Agra Industries, Lincoln County 4-H, the Optimist Club and concerned citizens. By a show of hands, the majority of people in attendance favored the idea of an expo center.
The county has received $230,000 in insurance money from the loss of the grandstand and will receive another $924,000 toward the construction of a replacement structure. The insurance company had initially required a 6-month time frame from the time of settlement – which was signed in December – to construction. Lincoln County Administrative Coordinator Randy Scholz said the insurance company is agreeable to an extension of that time frame if the county shows progress toward a new facility.
The cost to replace the grandstand with a similar 2,500-seat structure is estimated at $1.2 million, which would be covered by the insurance money. The County Board would have to decide whether to pursue the expo center concept, he said.
“The whole County Board is going to have to decide what to do,” Scholz said. “The County Board would have to approve spending the money.”
Dale Christiansen, vice president of the Lincoln County Fair Association, said, “We’re looking at a golden opportunity here and golden opportunities come with a price tag.”
Cindi Christiansen of the 4-H Leaders Association said she believes the expo center would provide a return on the investment.
“This is a huge opportunity for the community,” she said. “This isn’t something that has to come out of taxpayers’ money. Are we going to recoup this money? Definitely. There are so many organizations looking for a facility like this to hold events.”
Art Lersch, UW Extension community development agent, said he couldn’t find a facility comparable to the one proposed within a 150-mile radius of Merrill. He mentioned the capability of holding events such as tractor pulls in the winter. For concert events, with floor seating included, the proposed expo center could hold up to 6,000 people.
Pete Annis of the Lincoln County Rodeo Committee agreed that the new facility would be in demand for many different events.
“We have the opportunity to put Merrill and Lincoln County on the map by building a facility such as this,” he said. “Right now it’s useless space, it gets used two weeks out of the year.”
Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki also voiced support for the project.
“I think you’ll be amazed what something like this would bring into the community,” he said.
Lincoln County Public Property Committee chairman Bill Zeitz said he favors the project, but has no intention to strap the taxpayers.
“Let’s try to do this without hitting the taxpayers,” he said, adding that he is willing to push the expo center issue on the County Board.
Plans to replace the grandstand began long before the structure was razed due to storm damage last summer. The efforts leading to the expo center proposal began over two years ago when the county sought input from fairground user on how to promote the property to increase usage. The county has approved the creation of an “Expo Center Authority” to manage the fairgrounds, along with any new facility that may be built on the grounds. The organization process is ongoing, with the writing of bylaws and a business plan.
“One of the functions of this organization would be fund raising,” Lersch said.
The county’s Public Property Committee will discuss moving the expo center proposal forward at its Feb. 20 meeting. The proposal would then go to other county committees and ultimately to the full County Board.

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