Haywood County bails out fairground arena, againWritten by Colby Dunn
The Haywood County Fairgrounds are on the way to being back in business after a scare that shuttered the covered arena for code-compliance violations.
An infusion of cash by Haywood County commissioners saved the fairgrounds from cancelling upcoming events at the arena, which would have hurt the local economy and killed off the fairground’s main revenue stream.
The arena lacks permanent bathrooms and instead uses port-a-potties during events. As a result, the arena has been operating with a temporary building permit for the past five years.
The temporary permit has expired, however, forcing the covered arena to shut down, and in turn canceled upcoming events for the year unless someone came up with $400,000 for restrooms.
The Haywood Agricultural and Activities Board, which operates the fairgrounds, didn’t have the cash.
With the fate of the facility on the line, the fair board again appealed county commissioners for financial help. At their meeting this week, several members of the community spoke to how vital the place is to the county, its economy and its heritage.
“The fairgrounds are an important part of our agricultural heritage in Western North Carolina. It’s a big reason why people like and visit here in Haywood County. It’s part of who we are,” said Bruce Johnson, president of the Greater Haywood Chamber of Commerce, at Monday’s commission meeting.
He, like other supporters, expressed concern that once events left the arena, it would be increasingly challenging to court them back.
It marks the second time in a year the county has put up a cash infusion to save the arena and fairgrounds. The fairground arena was nearly lost to foreclosure last year after defaulting on a loan dating to its construction.
The fairgrounds once received an annual contribution from the county, which covered the loan payment. But when the recession hit, the county cut its contribution to the fairground, and it was left with no way to pay the loan.
So the county ultimately stepped in and paid off $337,000 left on the loan.
Good use of county money?
Not everyone spoke out in favor of the fairground, however. Some wondered why the facility had failed these 21 years to become self-sustaining, part of its original mission and still one of the current board’s main goals. They asked commissioners to let the fairground succeed or fail on its own, without more county help, especially since it’s not an essential government service.
But commissioners were sympathetic to the fairground’s plight, reminding the audience that the county provided 75 percent of the site’s funding until it was pulled three years ago, thanks to the tanking economy.
How many entities — churches, businesses, individuals — could be expected to survive without help if they lost 75 percent of their revenue, asked Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick also stepped in to defend the county’s support of the fairground as important, even if it is non-essential.
“This is not necessarily an essential government function, but there’s a lot of things that government does that are not an essential government functions. It’s more a quality of life issue,” said Kirkpatrick, to applause from the audience.
The county has spent over $1.7 million on the fairground since 1990, including paying off the loan last year, according to County Finance Director Julie Davis.
And while members of the fairground board say they’re looking at every possible revenue stream outside county coffers, it’s not exactly the best time to go on a money hunt.
Their most promising lead is a federal loan, but it hasn’t panned out — the loan agency won’t have funds to lend until the federal government has a budget in place, which may still take weeks or months. So the board is looking to other ideas to get the fairground back on its feet.
“We are looking at grant opportunities and other possible loan opportunities, we’re looking at the possibility of corporate sponsorships, we’re trying to look in as many places as we can come up with to make this work,” said Fair Board Member Nancy Davis, who also heads up the dog show slated to appear this June, one of the major events in jeopardy because of the closure.
Davis said the board didn’t know that the temporary occupancy permit would, or could, be a problem, and they were surprised by the arena’s closure.
But, she said they’ve been working hard on ideas that will push the facility into self-sufficiency, and they’re trying to take the place that’s been kept alive by the sweat and toil of volunteers on to the next level.
Working toward solvency
Enter Aaron Mabry. Mabry is a Haywood County native who has been brought on to beef up the fairgrounds offerings and schedule, to pitch it, full-time, to any event he can find.
He’s excited about the possibilities for the site, and sees self-sufficiency within three to four years as an extremely attainable goal.
“You’ve got car shows, you’ve got cook-off’s, you’ve got other types of fair events that we’ve never done before,” Mabry rattled off confidently. “It’s really unlimited as to what you can do, it’s just a matter of taking the time and the resources you have.”
The site has long been agriculturally focused — most of the events held here have an agrarian connection in some form or another. And while Mabry doesn’t see this as a bad thing — the heritage and lifeblood of Haywood County is, after all, farming and the fairground facilities lend themselves to agricultural events — he’s keen to widen the field on what kind of events and clients come to the fairground. And it’s safe to say he’s ambitious about the prospects, given that he’s now able to dedicate his efforts to selling the fairground full-time.
When asked how many events he’d like to see there annually, he’s quick to answer: “365.”
“Up to now, it’s really just been marketed for the weekend,” said Mabry. “I’d like to have an event here every single day, that’s my goal, to bring in consistent weekly revenue that’s dependable.”
The first step in getting there, though, he said, is getting the arena back open, getting its bathrooms up to par.
According to Haywood County Facilities Director Dale Burris, the place should be completed and ready for inspection by June 15, just in time to accommodate the June 18-19 dog show.
And as for the county, County Manager Marty Stamey said the county is not over-extending itself. For now, money will be pulled from the county’s fund balance, but they’ll seek a short construction loan with the approval of the Local Government Commission to repay the fund balance, then hopefully recoup that with the sale of one of the county’s currently or soon-to-be vacant buildings. Those properties promise to bring in upwards of $3 million, when sold.
They’ll also draft an agreement between the county and the fairground, making sure that if the fairground becomes profitable, they’ll try to pay the money back.