By Tim Farley
EL RENO – Canadian County Commissioners decided Monday to pursue the purchase of land for a new fairground.
The commissioners, acting as trustees for the Canadian County Public Facilities Authority, did not publicly identify the property discussed in an executive session. However, the trustees have been publicly vocal at other times that property owned by the Jensen family at Interstate 40 and State Highway 81 is their top choice for a new fairground.
Authority legal counsel Gabe Bass said discussions in executive session are meant to keep the county’s ideas and comments private as they negotiate terms for a land purchase.
“It would be counter-productive and provide an unfair advantage if the other side was aware of the comments being made in executive session,” he said. “The trustees want to get a fair deal for the authority and the taxpayers.”
However, any contract between the authority and property owners would need to be considered and approved in an open meeting.
In previous commission meetings, all three commissioners have listed the Jensen property as their top choice. However, the commissioners have also discussed county-owned property adjacent to the juvenile justice center as a potential site for a new fairground.
At one point, commissioners were hopeful the Jensen family would donate almost an entire quarter section for the new fairground. However, reports that the authority and the Jensen family are negotiating a land deal would rule out the chance of the property being donated.
Commissioners decided months ago they intend to use the county’s use tax as their way of financing debt on the fairground project.
Commissioners have received support for a new fairground from members of the Canadian County Fair Board. Those members have argued a new fairground will attract new events to Canadian County, including rodeos, horse shows, car shows and concerts.
Before commissioners went behind closed doors, District 3 commissioner candidate Daniel Pugh urged the commissioners to drop the idea of buying the Jensen family land. Pugh is trying to unseat current District 3 Commissioner Jack Stewart. Pugh claims he has knocked on 3,000 doors in the District 3 area the past five months and believes voters have “no appetite” for a new fairground.
“This $47 million field of dreams, build it and they will come fairground fantasy will not have a nifty Hollywood ending,” he said.
Pugh believes the use tax money should be used to repair county roads, provide the sheriff with a self-sufficient jail, find new water resources and assist school districts with capital improvement projects.
Pugh isn’t alone with his beliefs. Other Canadian County residents are not sold on the major investment it will take to build a new fairground.
Randy Wright, president of Yukon National Bank, believes county commissioners and the county fair board should use the money to “fix up what they have.”
“It’s a waste of time and a waste of money,” he said.
The county could spend as much as $8 million to $9 million on the first phase of a new fairground and as much as $47 million on the entire project.
Poor attendance and a drop in entries at this year’s county fair prompted calls to stop the idea of building a new fairground.
“We need to figure out how to make it grow,” Wright said in a previous interview. “We need to build up the promotion (of the fair). By law, you must have a county fair but does that mean spending $47 million on a white elephant? I don’t think so.”
Wright stressed that the county fair is a “dying event with no promotion.”
District 2 Commissioner Anderson took exception to the “dying” comment.
“I don’t believe our fair is dying,” he said. “I do acknowledge we had a down year. FFA enrollment at the schools in the county has increased and I think they would utilize a better facility. If we had a better fairgrounds we could draw more events.”
In March, the commissioners hired Municipal Finance Services, Inc., the same company that assisted the county with financing on the jail.
The company’s representative, Ben Oglesberry, told the commissioners at the time he would recommend a payback term of 10-15 years with a combination of revenue notes and cash.
However, District 1 Commissioner Jack Stewart said in March that he would be reluctant to commit 100 percent of the use tax to the fairground project.
“It’s more volatile than the sales tax,” he said.
Oglesberry responded, “We don’t want to do anything that hurts phases two, three and four.”
The fairground, located in El Reno since 1954, does not meet modern accessibility and code requirements, according to a study conducted by Convention Sports and Leisure Intl., (CS&L). A new and improved fairground complex is projected to make the grounds more competitive and increase revenue with more traffic, the study’s authors wrote in a report sent to the commissioners in 2017.
Populous, an architecture and design firm from Norman, was also engaged by the county commissioners to include their building suggestions in the study.
Populous recommended a relocation of the fairground site, stating that the recommendations by CSL could not be accommodated at the current location. Populous stated it would create an increased truck and trailer traffic through local neighborhoods and the school sports complex, among other issues with remodeling or expanding the fairgrounds at the current location.