The Benton Franklin Fair Association might lease a portion of the Benton County Fairgrounds this spring and summer -- an arrangement that would open the door to horse racing and other events and potentially lead to the nonprofit taking a greater role in managing the grounds.
Benton County commissioners on Tuesday approved a six-month lease with the fair association for the Sundowns building, race track, horse barns, 4-H arena and RV parking lot.
Commissioner Shon Small, chairman of the three-member board, said he's excited about the development.
It comes seven months after commissioners terminated a lease with an equestrian training center at the grounds, prompting an outcry from some in the local horse community. Commissioners said "contract compliance issues" prompted their action.
The 17-member fair board hasn't yet signed off on the new lease, but the group is expected to consider the pact soon.
Fair Manager Lori Lancaster said her board supports the community and would like to provide a place for the equestrian community to practice and hold events. "They just want to make sure it makes financial sense for the fair," she said.
The fair association would pay $1,600 a month under the agreement approved by commissioners.
The nonprofit puts on the popular Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo held in August; it leases the fairgrounds the month of that event, last year paying about $163,000.
The association has proposed taking over management of part or all of the fairgrounds in the past, Lancaster said -- an idea that hasn't yet come to fruition. Some county officials indicated Tuesday that the short-term lease could be a step in that direction.
At least one group is ready to stage an event at the grounds if the lease happens. Nancy Sorick, general manager of the Tri-Cities Horse Racing Association, said her group hopes to work with the fair association to hold races over three weekends in the spring.
-- Commissioners heard an update on the work of the Benton County Sheriff's Office gang enforcement unit.
The unit was approved in 2011 and completed its first full year in 2012.
"I'm very excited about what we've been able to accomplish," Sheriff Steve Keane told commissioners. Through collaboration with other counties and cities, "we've really impacted this whole region. It's been very significant."
Sgt. Carlos Trevino presented some statistics: In 2012, the unit obtained 48 search warrants, filed 91 felony charges and 282 misdemeanor charges, made 321 warrant arrests, jailed 191 people and seized 18 dangerous weapons. The unit also saw a 58 percent drop in graffiti and seized a significant amount of narcotics.
In addition, the unit worked on prevention and education, including making several community presentations.