Lebanon Raceway’s impending departure opens up options
Paul McKibben reports:
When the Lebanon Raceway leaves the Warren County Fairgrounds next year or early 2014 for a new racino near Monroe, taxpayers will be left with a vacant 100-acre piece of prime real estate.
Warren County commissioners will decide the property’s fate. Recommendations so far range from a youth sports complex to an equestrian center to selling the property. Or the county could try to attract businesses to the site. Commissioners said it could be a year before a master plan is unveiled.
“That fairgrounds is like a jewel in Warren County, and it could really be a jewel if they make the right moves when the racing leaves there,” said Bill Smith, vice president of the Warren County chapter of the Ohio Horseman’s Council Inc.
Racinos are part of the gaming industry’s effort to expand in Ohio. Scioto Downs in Columbus, which opened June 1, is the only racino operating in Ohio. The Warren County racino, promising 700 jobs, is one of five racinos pending approval, according to the Ohio Lottery Commission.
Racinos combine horse racing and video slots.
The county owns 93 of the fairground’s 105 acres, 35 miles north of downtown Cincinnati. Lebanon Trotting Club Inc. and the Warren County Agricultural Society own the other 12 acres. The county’s portion has a $1.9 million assessed value.
For now, the county fair will stay put. Next year’s fair is scheduled for July at the fairgrounds, months before the racino would open.
Joe Wilson, president of the Warren County Agricultural Society, said the fair prefers not to move. But he said the fair is not compatible with a sports complex, primarily because of parking needs.
Desire to become ‘Lexington of Ohio’
The Warren County Equine Advisory Board in 2008 estimated the annual equine economic impact to be more than $24 million in the county, a number it said “could be increased by excellent facilities to draw visitors.”
Commissioner Dave Young said the fairgrounds has the infrastructure for an equestrian center with its existing barns, track and open land. “I want to make Warren County the ‘Lexington of Ohio’ to where we could have these horse/equestrian events here that would tie into our No. 1 industry (tourism),” Young said.
Smith said an equestrian center would require that indoor and outdoor show arenas be built, but the fairgrounds already has 80 percent of what’s needed. Such a facility could also host dog shows and other events. Smith could not provide a cost estimate.
Sports complex could have 20 fields
The youth sports complex would feature 12 soccer fields, eight baseball fields and parking, said Phil Smith, president and CEO of the Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Cost is estimated between $5 million and $7 million. The county would own it, but the bureau would operate it.
Smith said such a complex would generate 63,500 additional hotel room nights and $41.3 million in economic impact each year.
The bureau turns away 20-25 youth tournaments a year due to lack of facilities, Smith said. That means the county is losing $17.5 million annually in economic impact. “This is an absolute bottleneck to the economic development of this area,” he said. “There are a lot of youth sports rights holders we don’t even bother to call because we don’t have the space.”
Young, however, doesn’t think the sports complex would work because of a lack of hotels and nearby restaurants.
In addition, the nearby Voice of America Park in West Chester Township is adding 22 grass fields for both soccer and cricket.
Phil Smith said the $41.3 million in economic impact is based on outdoor fields only. That figure would increase, he said, by hosting wrestling, cheerleading and archery events at indoor facilities.
Convention space for smaller events
Commissioner Pat South said she had an architect voluntarily draw a rendering of a 20,000-square-foot convention facility. She said it was sized for smaller-scale events such as quilt shows and wedding receptions. She said if the county keeps the fairgrounds as an equestrian-related facility, it would take on the appearance of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The new convention center would resemble a horse barn.
South said the county has not done a technical study but said it’s possible that an equestrian center, convention center and sports complex could all be incorporated on the property.
There is a tentative agreement between the agricultural society and Miami Valley Gaming to allow the racino to continue to use the stables at the fairgrounds. The racino will not have stabling and training facilities in Turtlecreek Township.
Selling the property and finding a new home for the fair is another option. Such a move would have to be worked out with the city of Lebanon, said Martin Russell, the county’s economic development director. “It is prime real estate in the middle of the county.’’