A 4-H staff member’s idea to transfer responsibility for the Jefferson County Fairgrounds from the county general fund to Jefferson County Open Space could be a “very viable possibility” for keeping at least some portions of the fairgrounds running, Jefferson County Manager Don Davis said during a public meeting on Jan. 28.
Davis’ statements came in response to a comment made by Jefferson County 4-H Mentor Program Coordinator Lisa Stavig during a meeting held at the fairgrounds to provide residents and fairgrounds stakeholders a chance to brainstorm and share ideas to save the fairgrounds, which the county has been considering as it prepares to make $12.5 million in cuts to its general fund.
Stavig’s idea was for Jefferson County Open Space to take responsibility for the fairgrounds and then enter into an agreement with a non-profit organization that would be responsible for running it. A similar model is used at Dinosaur Ridge, which is run by the Friends of Dinosaur Ridge group under the purview of Jefferson County Open Space.
Transferring the fairgrounds from the general fund to Jefferson County Open Space would be advantageous, Stavig suggested, because Jefferson County Open Space is not subject to the same Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights restrictions on revenue as the general fund that have led to the need to make budget cuts to that fund while also currently hamstringing the fairground’s ability to take in revenue from events held there because that revenue counts against that cap.
“This general fund has to do what only government can do and I think a foundation can run this and maybe do better,” Stavig said.
Davis said he agreed with that assertion. Toward the end of the meeting, he told the crowd that had filled the Green Mountain conference room inside the Fairground’s Exhibit Hall to well past capacity for the second straight week that he planned to tell the county commissioners that he was now planning to recommend that the commissioners pursue transferring the fairgrounds to Jefferson County Open Space at their meeting on Feb. 4.
Davis had previously said that he would recommend the county cease operation of the fairgrounds, which would save the general fund $1.8 million, if a viable option for keeping the facility operating without continuing to burden the general fund could not be identified.
“The status quo doesn’t get us there, an enterprise doesn’t get us there and shutting down the fairgrounds is not a good option,” Davis said as he explained why he would make that recommendation. “So coming up an answer that involves [Jefferson County Open Space director] Tom Hoby and his staff and how we can come up with some viable solution will be my recommendation to the board moving forward.”
Buildings an obstacle
But while Davis and Hoby, who also spoke at the meeting, agreed that such an option could likely provide a workable solution for keeping the fairgrounds open, they both said such a course of action could also present challenges that would likely require the fairgrounds to look and operate differently than it currently does.
“We are very building averse because buildings cost a lot of money to run,” Hoby said of Jefferson County Open Space. “That’s one of the concerns we have when we acquire any property and when you look at the fairgrounds budget $525,000 of it is interdepartmental expenses which is largely to operate buildings.”
Both Davis and Hoby agreed that that reality would likely mean that ownership of only the buildings at the fairgrounds that are most essential to the agriculture and horse activities residents have indicated they are most concerned about protecting would likely be able to be included in a deal with Jefferson County Open Space.
“This would be an effort to make sure that we retain the essential services out here based on community input,” Davis said. “Now I can guarantee you that the answer won’t be the entire fairgrounds. But to make sure 90 percent of what you want is retained to make sure your kids and the things you know and love are out here that would be the goal.”
Another potential challenge would be requirements in the rules governing Jefferson County Open Space that any activities held at the fairgrounds would need to be “not-for-profit.” However, Hoby said it would likely be possible for the fairgrounds to charge a fee for some activities to be held at the fairgrounds that are consistent with Jefferson County Open Space’s community mission.
Both Hoby and Davis also suggested that “the devil would likely be in the details” when it came to the impact such a plan would have. He added that prioritizing the things most important to fairground users to preserve would be the key for any potential deal with Open Space.
but that the process to transfer the fairgrounds would seek to iron out those types of issues as much as possible. However, that process would require a serious effort to determine what is most important at the fairgrounds and prioritizing a way forward based on those determinations.
“If we are going to say all of it then we are still at square one,” Davis said. “If we are going to say these things are the most important and then prioritize as we go through that’s where we get to preserving the things that are most important and talking about what to do with the things that are not important.”
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