Our Voice: Fairgrounds lease holds promise for Benton County taxpayers, equestrians

February 6, 2013 

Benton County commissioners showed some creative thinking in leasing a portion of the fairgrounds to the Benton Franklin Fair Association.

The short-lived agreement only covers this spring and summer, but that ought to be enough time for both parties to weigh the costs and benefits.

The fair association will pay $1,600 a month for use of the Sundowns building, race track, horse barns, 4-H arena and RV parking lot.

Benton County is a little late to the table. The fair association has offered to manage the fairgrounds year-round at least since 2006, but couldn't get commissioners to give it a serious look until this year.

We can't blame the county for taking a cautious approach. When the fair association last operated the grounds year-round in the mid-1980s, Benton and Franklin counties ended up taking over and paying off the debts.

But that was more than 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Besides, it's not as if the drain was plugged when the county took control. Operating losses have run about $70,000 to $80,000 a year.

The lease signed last month is far more restrictive than the arrangement the fair association was proposing a few years ago, but that's OK. Sometimes it makes sense to walk before you run.

The equestrian community stands to benefit from the new arrangement. It has a sympathetic partner in the fair association.

The Tri-Cities Horse Racing Association already has expressed an interest in working with the nonprofit association to hold races over three weekends in the spring.

Seven months ago, commissioners terminated a lease with an equestrian training center at the fairgrounds, bringing a halt to some popular equestrian events.

Commissioners said "contract compliance issues" prompted their action. A repeat of those troubles seems unlikely under the new agreement.

Horses are an integral part of western culture. Events that help preserve our heritage are important, but rarely profitable.

But with the right marketing effort, the fairgrounds can add an array of other events -- from monster truck shows to swap meets -- that bring in the crowds.

We have a high degree of confidence in the fair association's ability to manage the facilities. That's partly because we're well acquainted with Fair Manager Lori Lancaster. She's a longtime member of our editorial board. She didn't directly participate in this editorial, but we were undoubtedly influenced by our association with her.

We're more swayed by decades of watching the Benton-Franklin County Fair & Rodeo thrive. The premier community event provides the county with a lease payment of about $163,000 for the month of August.

We won't be surprised to see this six-month lease lead to a longer-term agreement for the entire 126-acre site. There is great potential to benefit taxpayers and the community.

Kudos to Benton County commissioners and the fair association board for taking this first step.

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