Put fairgrounds proposal at top of county's agenda

By the Herald editorial staff

Benton County needs to put the fair association's proposal to purchase the fairgrounds on the fast track.

At their last discussion on the topic, county commissioners appeared ready to shelve the offer instead. That would be a mistake.

The plan has the potential to reap benefits for county taxpayers and just about everyone else in the Mid-Columbia.

Anything less than a thorough and public review is a disservice to the community.

We have an admitted bias on this issue. Lori Lancaster, Benton-Franklin Fair Association manager, is a member of the Herald's editorial board.

But our leanings don't affect whatever advantages -- or disadvantages -- might be tied to the association's offer.

The county needs to take a more aggressive look at the alternatives and decide whether the public could be better served by new owners at the fairgrounds.

Commissioners haven't completed the homework necessary to answer that question.

The next step needs to happen sooner than later. The fair association's five-year lease on the 126-acre site in east Kennewick expires this year.

Both sides should know whether a deal to sell the property is possible before it's time to renew that agreement. Under the current lease, the association pays $150,000 a year to use the fairgrounds for the annual fair.

Commissioner Jim Beaver tells us he'd like to see a summit meeting of sorts, bringing together all three commissioners and the fair association.

The public and anyone else with a stake in the fairgrounds, such as the Tri-City Horse Racing Association, would be invited.

The discussion could identify the details needed to either reject the idea or make the sale acceptable to all concerned. It's a logical course and certainly better than letting the proposal languish until it's forgotten.

The plan deserves a much better hearing than it's gotten so far.

Commissioners ought to proceed with caution. As stewards of this public property, they have a responsibility to make certain any change in ownership is good for the community.

But that shouldn't be an excuse for inaction. The meeting Beaver proposes would give all parties a chance to put their concerns on the table, where commissioners and the fair association can begin to address them.

One idea would be to include a reversionary clause, calling for a return of the property to the county if the fair association fails to live up the terms of the sale.

That would give commissioners the power they need to guarantee the fairgrounds remain a community asset, providing facilities for a wide range of public uses.

Right now, the county loses about $70,000 a year on the fairgrounds. The fair association believes it can turn a profit by improving the way the facilities are marketed.

Under the fair association's proposal, it may be possible for Benton County taxpayers to get out from under that recurring cost and see their fairgrounds put to additional uses.

If that can be done without threatening any existing uses, it's hard to see the argument against it.