Sheila McLaughlin reports:
What will become of the Warren County fairgrounds when Lebanon Raceway moves out to its new racino site in Turtlecreek Township?
That’s the $6 million question being tackled by a think-tank committee assigned to figure it out. The group of 15 residents, business leaders and government officials is expected to make a recommendation to Warren County commissioners in October or early November.
At stake: the future of prime real estate in a fast-growing area of what the 2010 census found is the 2nd fastest-growing county in Ohio.
Proposals have started coming into the county in the past month, according to records obtained by The Enquirer. Among the ideas: an equestrian center, a technology ‘incubator’ even a site for music festivals.
- What should Warren County do with its fairgrounds? Tell the commissioners using the Enquirer’s ‘talk to your government’ tool.
And while county officials have indicated they don’t want to sell the 97.5 acres worth at least $5.3 million just outside downtown Lebanon, one county commissioner said it’s not out of the question.
“Upper and foremost, $6 million is not going to be adequate to totally let go of that land and move the fairgrounds somewhere else,” Commissioner Pat South told The Enquirer.
“I have always said I would sell it in a heartbeat to bring in new jobs. I can build a fairgrounds anywhere. But, we’ve not marketed it to even solicit purchase of the 100 acres – not that that idea wouldn’t be submitted,” South, who also is a member of the redevelopment committee, said.
The fairgrounds has been home to the Warren County Fair for more than 160 years.
Several proposals favor keeping the fair there and developing a horse-centered venue to keep with the property’s history of harness racing for more than 60 years and the county’s large horse population. Warren County was home to 2,798 horses – the fifth largest horse population in Ohio – during the latest horse census in 2007, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
• The Warren County Equestrian Committee, a group of equestrian enthusiasts, has proposed building a heated arena for equestrian events, dog shows, trade shows and year-round rental. Members suggested a new barn that could serve as a “horse hotel” for people traveling with animals, a new and updated camping area, and a convention center. Such a re-development would generate about $1.7 million a year for the fairgrounds and have a $17 million economic impact for Warren County, the proposal said.
• The Warren County Small Business Alliance proposed using a small portion of the land to establish a technology incubator/innovation center.
• The Warren County Equestrian Advisory Board, which was formed in 2007 to help the county define what horse-oriented facilities were needed, wants an Agricultural and Equine Exposition Center that could also be used by 4-H clubs.
• The Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to transform the land into 14 soccer fields, eight baseball diamonds, a convention center, gallery and educational space and a venue for concerts and music festivals. The annual economic impact for Warren County and Lebanon is estimated at $41.3 million. The plan involves tearing down 17 barns and other buildings and removing the racetrack.
Other ideas submitted on the redevelopment committee’s website and at a booth at the county fair included stock car racing, bull riding, an ice rink, community garden space, riding and carriage driving trails, and turning the fairgrounds into a miniature Lexington Horse Park.
County commissioners by early next year have to have a firm plan to apply for $3 million in state money that is being made available to redevelop four former horse tracks that are relocating to racino sites across the state. The other sites are North Randall near Cleveland, Grove City near Columbus; and Toledo, according to the Ohio Department of Development.
Miami Valley Gaming, which leases the racetrack property from the Warren County Fair Board, has promised another $3 million toward redevelopment, said Commissioner Pat South, who sits on the redevelopment committee.
Until something happens at the site, the City of Lebanon loses $44,000 a year in revenues and the county loses $225,000 to $250,000 a year in lost rent and base utility costs that were paid by the racetrack owners, county officials said.
Whatever goes at the fairgrounds on North Broadway Street just north of downtown historic Lebanon will have to financially self-sustaining, South said.
The visitors bureau’s plan said the fair, which officials say pays for itself, could still operate there. But, Joe Wilson, the Warren County Fair Board president and a member of the redevelopment committee, said having the athletic fields there would severely limit parking during the fair because people would not be allowed to park on the playing fields. The five-day fair each July takes up at least 70 acres of the grounds, he said.
The fair board intends to submit a proposal that would include an Equestrian Center to board, train and show horses, an exposition center, and overall improvements to the fairgrounds while letting the fair stay put, Wilson said.
He said he’s heard from many people who don’t want the fair to move out.
“People who have been around Warren County for a long while feel it’s very important to keep this tradition going on,” he said. “It’s very important for us also to keep the history of the standard bred racing here.”