Commissioners put the Benton-Franklin fair on notice

Benton Franklin fair executive talks about the future of the fair

Benton Franklin fair executive Lori Lancaster talks to the Herald about the future of the fair.
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Benton Franklin fair executive Lori Lancaster talks to the Herald about the future of the fair.

The Benton-Franklin County Fair & Rodeo could lose its home if an agreement can’t be reached soon.

Benton County Commissioners put the nonprofit that organizes the annual bi-county fair on notice this week that if it doesn’t sign a new lease soon, it will lose access to the fairgrounds.

At its regular Tuesday session, commissioners agreed to notify the Benton-Franklin Fair Association in writing that in the absence of a lease, the “association will no longer be entitled access on or within the Benton County Fairgrounds premises.”

The current lease expires at the end of the month.

The move ratchets up tension between the county, which owns the fairgrounds in east Kennewick, and its main tenant.

The conflict began earlier this year, after the county invested millions to upgrade facilities to accommodate lucrative weddings and conferences.

The county controversially doubled, tripled and even quadrupled rental fees for fairgrounds facilities. And it dropped a reduced fee schedule that kept the fairgrounds affordable for youth groups.

The move led to protests from longtime tenants who said they were being priced out of a community asset. It later backed off and reinstated rates for youth groups, but held to the higher rates for everyone else.

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Commissioners Jim Beaver and Shon Small approved sending the letter. Jerome Delvin was not present.

The move caught Lori Lancaster, the fair’s executive director, by surprise.

Lease negotiations often take time and the fair has never been threatened with the loss of access to the fairgrounds, she said. Negotiators are expected to meet again this week.

The fair association previously paid about $200,000 annually for rent, utilities and facilities charge for the exclusive use of the fairgrounds for a month in late summer.

Lancaster said the association signed off on a new fee structure that hikes that amounts by about 20 percent. But other terms are unacceptable, she said.

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The county initially offered a five-year deal in September, but reduced that to two, even redlining the words “five year” from the updated documents. Lancaster said two years isn’t long enough to secure carnivals and other vendors who prefer longer-term commitments.

“There are only so many carnivals,” she noted.

The new lease also requires the fair association to vacate the shed-turned-office it has occupied since 1968 by the end of 2019 but it doesn’t offer any assistance to the nonprofit with leaving a new space or building a new office.

The new lease also requires the fair association to go through the county’s procurement process for capital projects on the fairgrounds and to follow the state’s prevailing wage laws.

Public agencies typically are required to pay prevailing, or union-scale, wages on public projects. But the 30 percent increase in cost is prohibitive to a nonprofit that developed most of the buildings on the fairgrounds.

Lancaster said that requirement already has affected its ability to update fencing at the arena. It has a grant for the $102,000 project, which will improve safety, but hasn’t received guidance on how to comply with the procurement rules.

February is the deadline to finish the fence update.

As a nonprofit, she said, the association relies on grants, donations and volunteers for projects.

Despite the hardening stances, Lancaster said the fair will return to the fairgrounds in August, as it has since 1948.

The association is selling carnival wristbands as Christmas stocking stuffers and is moving to book entertainers and other vendors.

“There will be a fair,” she said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514