DARLINGTON — A meeting to explore the possibility, interest, options or opportunities of replacing the current Lafayette County Fairgrounds on Hwy. 81 in Darlington, with a new fairgrounds, at a different location was discussed at Bridges Restaurant, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
A large crowd of interested parties listened to Steve Carpenter, chairman and Joe Wedig, vice-chair of the Lafayette County Livestock Committee, lay-out very tentative plans on creating a new “Fairgrounds”. Carpenter said, “This is not a done deal and we are looking for input. We want the whole community and county to come together with ideas and input on this thing, so it can benefit the entire county.
To be clear this new “Fairgrounds” will not be owned by Lafayette County and would be owned by an independently run non-profit entity and would have it’s own board.
The vision is to buy approximately 80 acres of land and build a new sheep barn, swine barn, swine/sheep arena, cattle barn, horse facility, an all season show/sale arena and a multi-purpose event center. With 80 acres there would be ample space for buildings, parking, carnival during fair time, tractor pull (with two lanes) and grandstand area and even a camping area. The race track wasn’t ruled out, but it wasn’t listed in the presentation.
The multi-purpose building will be the centerpiece of the project. It would serve as the floral hall and commercial exhibit building during the fair. It would also be an all season venue, that would be heated and air conditioned and have bathrooms. It could host weddings, expos, trade shows, swap meets, etc. year round. Also, there has been interest from Southwest Tech and UW - Extension to have classrooms (a learning center) in the building. The reason the multi-purpose building is key, is that it could provide a revenue stream year-round and cash flow the project.
An economic feasibility study will need to be done, maybe in conjunction with the Lafayette Development Corporation, to see if this facility is a viable project. Carpenter said, “This could be a catalyst to economic development for the whole county.”
BJ Jones spoke about showing cattle at other counties throughout the state. He stated that these shows happen around the state throughout the year. He said when he’s at these shows - he’s thinking why can’t we do this in Lafayette County. There is a regional Holstein Breeders organization that Lafayette County is part of and when it’s our turn to host a show, we can’t host, because our facility isn’t big enough, and we have it at the Lancaster Fairgrounds. Jones also spoke about the current facility limitations and issues.
Carpenter addressed the horse situation. He said, “Right now the fair’s horse show happens a week before the fair, because of space limitations, they really don’t feel like part of the fair, we want to change that. Horse organizations have shows all over the state, we could potentially host horse shows. The folks that are into horses will travel all over the state for shows. They stay in motels or camp and bring an economic benefit to the areas that host these shows.
Denise Wellnitz, Darlington High School administrator, shows horses herself and spoke about her experiences showing around the state. She said, “These big horse shows, the closest one is in Jefferson County, will typically be a three day show. Horse people will stay in motels or camp and spend a lot of money in the towns that they go to. These horse shows occur from April to October.”
Reasons to replace and relocate: the current fairground buildings are 67 years old; highway 81 (that runs next to the fairgrounds) will be widened in August of 2017 causing the wash racks to be torn out, some of the buildings will be in highway right-of-way; swine barn is over crowded; no bathroom/shower facilities for exhibitors; no horse barn; no where to expand; lack of parking. Something will have to happen with the fairgrounds sooner or later.
The committee looked at four different land options and came up with a property south of Darlington, located east of the First Baptist Church in Darlington, inside the southwest corner of Co. K and Ames Road on Darlington Township. The property is currently owned by Greg White and is known as Barth land. The committee has secured an option agreement to buy the land 81 acres. At the meeting a casual remark was mentioned by an individual, that land would be available at the intersection of Hwy. 23 and 11 for free. It has since come to light, that wasn’t a serious offer and is not on the table, according to Wedig and Carpenter.
Planning and design: the committee has been contact with K/O Architects of West Des Moines, Iowa. This company’s specialty is designing fairgrounds and entertainment facilities. The company looks at the site and traffic and people flow and do an entire design for the new facility.
Funding: Carpenter said they are just beginning looking into the funding processes. The committee is looking into grants and he thinks there will be some available, specifically campground area and learning center area. The new entity will be a 501c(3), so donations made to the group will be tax deductible. Fundraising programs are being looked at, perhaps a pledge program, where a donator could pledge a certain amount of money over five years. Carpenter said, “We have been asked what kind of money are we looking at? We really don’t know. But a figure we’re throwing out is around $6 million. That’s a big number, I know, but with everything we’re planning I don’t see how it will be less than that.” He continued, “We will need some big donators and we can offer naming rights for the barns or buildings.”
Timeline: First we have to establish that we are going forward with this. After that the committee is looking at three years minimum and as many as five years. Wedig said, “If we get an answer tonight (to go ahead) then we would start the process and then in eighteen months we would know our answer, if we can get the funds.” Carpenter said, “We will need people from the community to step up and help with fundraising.” The key is how are we going to raise the money.
Comment from the public: Have you talked to the people who live by the proposed site, that will have to put up with this? Answer – this site is still tentative, we are not tied to it, but we had to start with a site somewhere. We will gladly try to work with the neighbors. No matter where you put it I’m sure we would ruffle some feathers.
Other subjects: What would become of the current fairgrounds? Answer - Not sure, that’s up to the county; How much has the Livestock Committee spent on the current fairgrounds? Answer - $96,000 in the last five years and that’s nothing but band-aids; Are you thinking of financing? Answer – The committee doesn’t think it’s a good idea to go into debt on this.
Not too many questions came from the public, but through a show of hands it seemed that a strong majority was in-favor of moving ahead with the plan.
Wedig said, “We encourage everybody here to go home, talk to your friends and neighbors and if you got ideas, let us know. Cause we are open to anything. We have great concepts, but if we stay there (at the current fairgrounds) the only place we’re going is nowhere. Because that fairgrounds we have now, will not last forever. We have a good opportunity here to go forward.”
Two more ‘listening session’ meetings are scheduled around the county, the first will be in the Village of Belmont at the Community Building, May 8, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. The second will be at the Knarley Oak in Argyle, May 9, 2017 also at 7:00 p.m.