June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Lane County wants to know your long-term vision for the fairgrounds

14 min read
Commissioners asked staff to scope an engagement process encouraging the community to "think of it as an open blank plate" and to "dream big."

Lane County will ask the community to share its long-term vision for the fairgrounds. On March 5:

Corey Buller (Lane Events Center and Lane County Fair manager): We are back here again to discuss the long-term future of the fairgrounds and facilities. We’ve undertaken several components of a master plan process since approximately 2017. At the conclusion of each one of those components, we have not made any final decisions, and we have continued to operate with the basic principle that we’re an enterprise fund and that we need to generate our own revenue; that along with contributions from TLT (Transient Lodging Tax) is what supports us.

[00:00:35] The work to date has been focused on market-driven return on investment projects. The goal for those was to keep current clients and the potential to attract and grow new business and support the visitor industry.

[00:00:48] So, despite some comments that the facilities and grounds are quite dilapidated, they’re not. They’re old, for sure. We spend several hundred thousand dollars a year making upgrades and doing renovations and trying to keep that area safe and clean.

[00:01:03] We strongly believe that some of those buildings are past their useful life. Just as a kind of side note there, some of the expo barns were actually working dairy cattle barns with an old milking parlor and things like that. So yes, they are old, but we have been very creative in the ways that we have utilized them. Currently, right now that actually hosts our sports center, with volleyball and basketball happening in there.

[00:01:25] John Q: Lane County looks at the fairgrounds as an asset that can help the economy.

[00:01:30] Corey Buller (Lane Events Center division manager): In 2019, the estimated economic impact of our operations was over $36.5 million dollars. Current estimates and projections show that it’s maybe as high as $68.9 million by 2025, depending on the conditions and the events that we have going on.

So we have approximately 1,000 rental-days of the facilities in 2023. That does not include the sports center or a majority of the ice center uses, which we don’t track the same way. (And their uses probably make up a lot more than we think they do.)

[00:02:02] And in addition to that, we’ve opened as an emergency shelter last year for Egan Warming Center for over 20 days, animal shelter and fire incident command post for over 13 days. Already this year, we’ve opened five days for public health, four days as an Egan Warming Center, and actually we’re activating tonight (March 5) for that, and for the next couple nights depending on how the weather goes.

[00:02:25] So, with all of that kind of just simple history context in mind, I think we’re just here to talk about how we want to move forward. Dan (Hurley), you want to jump in?

[00:02:39] Dan Hurley (Lane County Public Works director): We started this process to have a master plan for the fairgrounds several years ago. And as Corey mentioned, we’ve moved through a few phases of that, but we’ve put things on hold while we’ve been working through the conversation around the stadium for the Ems, and that decision is yet to be resolved, but I don’t think it prevents us from starting this conversation of how we want to restart as we’re looking at how to develop a master plan.

[00:03:07] This is such a unique asset to the community, having over 50 acres in the heart of the city here that’s used for so many different uses—whether it’s an emergency, for economic activity—you know, just this week, we’re going to have the home show out there. We’re going to have Egan activating to shelter people from the cold.

So it’s just an important resource, but we need to develop a master plan to envision: What is our long-term vision for this property and which buildings do we want to make sure we make investments in to maintain? What new facilities do we want to add there?

[00:03:41] And really, it’s wide open what we could do with that property right now. And we feel like we need to have a thoughtful process as we re-engage with this.

We laid out a few options for you to consider, of forming a steering committee or engaging a consultant to do a robust public engagement process that would include polling and public meetings. We could elicit proposals from potential developers who do this sort of work and could envision a grander vision for the property—or some sort of a hybrid of any of those approaches.

[00:04:18] Heather Buch (Lane County commissioner): I really do think we need to do something robust with communitywide input that is not just those that are in the metro center, because this is intended to be a countywide asset and the funding mechanisms that we use are the TLT (transient lodging tax) and other funding are also countywide, so areas outside the metro area are interested in where those investments go.

[00:04:48] And so, when thinking about involving and doing a robust envisioning with the community, it would be really important to me to make sure that our rural areas are well tied into that process and require a different kind of reach out than maybe typically for those that are in the cities.

[00:05:07] We know we don’t have all the resources to do everything that we wish we could do there. And that has to be part of the conversation as well. But it’s important that it’s not just project-by-project with us as the board, that it really includes what the community envisions and wants in their city center. And even though it’s not quite considered downtown or even midtown, as the city grows, it very well could be considered in that location over the years.

[00:05:38] And all the feedback that I’ve gotten is that people really like the fair there, and they do like the convenience of it being in the city, rather than maybe on the outskirts of town. But all that is up in the air because rural people, rural residents may feel very differently. And trying to mesh what the differences of opinion on what should be there will be an important factor and we don’t know what all those options are.

[00:06:12] When we speak to the public, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Think of it as an open blank plate, you know, what do you want here? What can we envision here?’ And throw everything out and then narrow down to a point where there’s actually some feasible items.

[00:06:30] I’d like to see larger visionary projects there in a pipeline. And we know that’s going to have to extend several years, maybe even a couple decades out, given the potential projects that could be there. And maybe you have a mixture of big projects, little projects, and get grants here and there for improvements and access.

[00:06:52] But I’d love to have the whole conversation with everybody across the board in the county.

[00:06:59] David Loveall (Lane County commissioner): Everybody knows what I want to do for it. I’d love to do something grandiose. And I agree with Commissioner Buch, you know, when she said this is a blank plate, and we can really envision something mighty there. Whether that means we keep the Lane Event Center and the fairgrounds and all that thing there, or we do something in partnership with Eugene to where they have an opportunity to reinvent who they are on 55 acres, and we move the entirety to somewhere else, to a larger site even, that’s maybe got some amenities that we could look at.

[00:07:27] I do agree, though, that this is an opportunity for us to not just dip our toe in the water and see what we can put band-aids on and fix, but I think it’s an opportunity for us to do, like Commissioner Buch said, do a 30-year plan.

[00:07:39] I mean, something grandiose that Lane County needs to do, because it’s obvious come budget time that we’re going to need to make money. I mean, that’s just what we have to do now. We can’t afford to keep spending money, so we have to, almost—in the investment world they say, ‘We have to spend good money to make good money.’

[00:07:55] And so I think that it is going to cause us to kind of be uncomfortable at times, but it’s also going to also focus us to be more fiscally responsible and astute in the future. I mean, sometimes you just have to bite off more than you can chew and chew like hell, and maybe we’re at that point.

[00:08:12] Ryan Ceniga (Lane County commissioner): I think we’re all right there on the same page. Engaging our rural communities is obviously high on my priority list. As I attend things like the 4-H fair, there’s a lot of concern if 4-H is going to continue to be allowed at said venue with the Amazon (Creek) being so close and the problems we have with animal waste and washing and so on and so forth. So, as this moves forward, you know, giving some certainty to some of these questions and giving people faith that this will happen and that they can really buy into this project.

[00:08:50] Dan Hurley (Lane County Public Works director): We actually had a similar situation with the parks master plan, where we needed to do a reboot. And what the board decided to do at that point was to hire a consultant to lead a process and implement a task force. And the task force was made up of stakeholders that had connections to parks in different ways, and representation across the different districts. And then the stakeholders worked through a visioning process guided by the consultant.

[00:09:15] And then we took those visions out into the community and got feedback on them, and then developed a plan from there. So, you know, maybe something similar to that.

[00:09:25] Pat Farr (Lane County commissioner): I’m glad you talked about the parks master plan, because that was a tremendous success, the entire process was successful, the outcome was successful, and we gave ourselves a plan that we really are able to move deep into the future and address issues like the loud music that was happening at Buford. That was kind of the precipitory event that that caused the hubbub.

[00:09:42] We don’t have—maybe we do have a precipitory event here—but the thing is, the people who live around the fairgrounds, the fairgrounds was there when they moved there. They know what to expect from the fairgrounds as it is. And they know that we have a loud fair once a year, and there are events there every now and then that inhibit parking and traffic. But that being said, many of the people who live there, they’re committed to living there, they want to live there, and that’s why they live there, understanding that we do have a fairgrounds that has its current level of activity.

[00:10:11] So for the future, as we plan what is the fairgrounds going to look like in the next 5, 10, 20, 50 years, they do have a stake in it, the people who live there.

[00:10:19] I moved into West Eugene near an airport. Planes take off and planes land. If I didn’t want to live near an airport, I wouldn’t move there. Now when they built the next runway and the plane started taking off and landing over my house, that was a bit of an issue, but so I had something to say about that.

[00:10:34] But that being said, I’m looking forward to a process that helps us to decide: What does it look like? And I don’t have a preconceived notion of what it’s going to look like. It may be all housing. You know, it may be a convention center. I don’t know. I have thoughts of what I’d like to see, but I’m one person and I don’t live there. But I do live in the community. So I think what you’re talking about moving forward, Director Hurley, I like the process.

[00:10:55] I believe that this is our greatest publicly-owned asset—underused publicly-owned asset—inside of the urban growth boundaries. And the deliberative process that we’re talking about today is one that I’m looking forward to being a part of. And I think this is a big deal. This is a really big deal that we need to play, pay strict attention to. Thank you.

[00:11:13] Corey Buller (Lane Events Center division manager): As we approach the original steps on the master plan, our focus was on things that returned investment, or things that gave us opportunities to generate and capture new business. So as a recipient of TLT (Transient Lodging Tax), I feel it’s important that we contribute to that pool of money, so, things that focus on bringing visitors in; attracting people from outside the downtown area are very important.

[00:11:38] We do have some old buildings though and they are very restrictive based on design and age and they’re not ADA-compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act) and they’re not up to fire code and various other things. So, I think there’s a tremendous amount of ability to take some of those, replace them with multi-use facilities that are shaped like a rectangle, general in nature, but could house any number of things. As mentioned this morning, they could be gymnastics one weekend and the next weekend it could be a dog show. They could then be turned around and used as a warming center and somewhere as an air shelter. I mean, they are truly multi-use.

[00:12:16] David Loveall (Lane County commissioner): Let’s be frank. I’ve been working on this since I got into office 14 months ago, that I, my whole focus was, I wanted to move the fairgrounds. Let’s just be honest here, and I’ve been talking to a lot of folks out, who have land and real estate and dealmakers, and that’s what I’ve done in my life.

[00:12:28] So I think there’s a really creative way to go with this. Yeah, it’s a big-ticket item. It’s probably a half a billion dollars’ worth of investment. But as I see it, it’s a long-term investment, it’s something that we can set our sights on, and that we could chunk off in, in pieces.

[00:12:43] Let’s say we had 68 acres somewhere else, and the opportunity to have something that is part of that plan that we could purchase by making some other deal arrangement with the 55 acres that we have in downtown Eugene, that we could then hold ourselves over for the next five years.

[00:13:00] We’ve got to make sure we keep our biggest customers happy in the aspect of our event center, keep those coming here rather so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we have, you know, half a billion dollars in debt and we don’t know how to pay for it kind of a thing.

[00:13:11] We need to shift that proportionately. But I think there’s some conversations that could happen. I’m not sure if this is the right venue, probably isn’t, because I’m always wanting to put the cart before the horse, but that’s me. So, yeah, I would support a task force, I would support a visionary group to get together sooner than later.

[00:13:28] Laurie Trieger (Lane County commissioner): I’m not proposing one thing or another, but if, generally, you know: Do we need a fairground, a county fairground, is a fair an activity that we as an organization in this community are committed to ensuring we have, regardless of where it’s located? That would be a big thing to know. If people weren’t, we’d be having really different conversations.

[00:13:51] Heather Buch (Lane County commissioner): I know that we’re looking to make some money or at least break even on the site, right? We certainly have budget woes that we’ll be talking about in the next few months. But it’s important to know, again, what the people want there because what they want there may not be the thing that makes the most money.

[00:14:18] We know people love hockey, and they love that ice rink. Does it make the most money anything could possibly be in the choices there? No. We know that. But these are community assets that enrich our community and the culture and vibe of people wanting to live here. And those don’t always make money.

[00:14:34] So we really have to balance what we think the community wants versus what we can afford and what we possibly could maybe make a little money on one place that could offset another asset that’s not making the most income for the whole fairgrounds. We won’t know all of that until we start the process that you’re suggesting here.

[00:15:02] Steve Mokrohisky (Lane County administrator): I want to maybe try to summarize what we’ve heard and make sure I get this right.

[00:15:07] There’s an interest in looking at a community engagement process that is facilitated by professionals that have some expertise in community visioning, particularly related to defined properties like this; that we’re looking at the highest and best use of these 55 acres, that provide both a community benefit as well as an operational at least break-even; that address market demand, placemaking, community-building are themes that I heard as well; and, yes, we need some professional consulting help to get the kind of best practices for; and again, identify the highest and best use.

[00:15:52] We need to engage key stakeholders. And those would be neighbors and fair board, and hockey folks, and Travel Lane County and those types of groups, as well as the broader community. So stakeholder groups, as well as then the broader community engagement.

[00:16:07] And I agree with Mr. Hurley, that coming back with a scope of work so that you can be really clear on, before we actually go out and solicit for assistance to guide us in this process, you can be really clear about the question that we’re asking for that professional help.

[00:16:22] John Q: Addressing the fair board:

[00:16:25] David Loveall (Lane County commissioner): You guys are doing a great job. I know many of you people on the board, for the fair board, have been on there for a good many years. I don’t want to say decades, because it makes us all feel old, but you guys have made a serious commitment in your heart and passion for what goes on down there.

[00:16:37] And I know that over the course of time there’s been a lot of dreaming and I would just encourage you just to dream big this time, leave a legacy for your efforts. And that would be just really helpful for the community because, I think, we’re a changing community and I think we’re visionary and I think it’s time for us to really do something we can put a stake in and be proud of.

[00:16:54] So I congratulate you for doing that and hope we go do our best.

[00:16:05] John Q: Lane County resumes work on its master plan for the fairgrounds, with commissioners encouraging the community to share their visions.

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