County, city to discuss transfer of fairgrounds
City of Merrill officials made a pitch to the Lincoln County Public Property Committee Monday night for the city to take over the fairgrounds.
Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki and City Administrator Dave Johnson attended the meeting, requesting that the county transfer ownership of the fairgrounds to the city along with $1.2 million. The county received that sum from an insurance claim after the grandstand at the fairgrounds was seriously damaged by a storm and subsequently demolished in 2012.
The county board has been unable to come to an agreement on a structure to replace the grandstand. Last month, the board voted to spend up to $50,000 for a feasibility study of needed improvements at the fairgrounds. At the same meeting, the board voted to sell a 200-by-500-foot corner of the fairgrounds to the Lincoln County Humane Society.
Bialecki said the economic impact of the fairgrounds is important to the Merrill community and could be even more so if the property is properly managed.
“Our concern is keeping it a viable venue for different events than it’s been used for lately,” Johnson added.
This will be the third year that the Lincoln County Fair has had to deal with not having a grandstand. The Wisconsin River Pro Rodeo has had to rent portable bleachers, an expense that has cut into the amount the event is able to contribute back to the community.
The current lack of a seating structure not only hampers existing events but leaves the fairgrounds useless for attracting new events, Johnson said. If Lincoln County can’t provide a venue for events, people will take their money elsewhere, he added.
The local non-profit service organizations that raise money at the fair are seeing a decline in the funding they have available to donate to the community, BIalecki said. The condition of the fairgrounds and the absence of a grandstand are hurting fair attendance, he said.
“Some have suggested that the city take it over,” Bialecki said. “I think it’s time we start having some serious discussions about it. We need the insurance check to get a building up. We need the seating. We can get the job done down there. We’re asking you guys to turn it over to the city of Merrill and let us take care of it.”
County Supervisor Jim Alber indicated he was interested in the city’s proposal.
“I have no argument that the city is probably in a better position to have that property,” he said.
But Alber, who introduced the resolution to sell a piece of land to the Humane Society, said that property transfer should stand.
“If this is a way to circle around and undo what has been done, I won’t have any part of it,” he said.
Public Property Chairman Jeff Hetfeld said he agreed with Bialecki about the fairgrounds and added that the Humane Society property transfer is a done deal. Transferring the rest of the fairgrounds to the city could be a win-win, he added. Hetfeld asked that County Administrative Coordinator Randy Scholz meet with city officials to discuss the issues involved with transferring ownership of the fairgrounds.
The committee voted unanimously to go forward with exploring the city’s proposal.
The county has put out a request for proposals for the feasibility study, which are due June 27. Should the city and county come to an agreement on a transfer, the county would not have to accept any of the proposals, Scholz said.
Bialecki said the city wouldn’t need a feasibility study.
Hetfeld asked that Scholz report back to the committee on July 8. Bialecki said the city’s Common Council would be discussing the issue during a Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday night.