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Haywood Fairgrounds scuttled as potential animal shelter site, but new site already in the wings

Haywood County is back on the prowl for potential sites to build a new $3 million animal shelter to replace its existing one.

County commissioners initially set their sights on an empty field at the Haywood County Fairgrounds. But that is now off the table due to deed hang-ups — namely legal covenants limiting what the fairground property can be used for.

“We have moved on and found another potential site,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.

That’s good news to fairgrounds supporters, who didn’t want an animal shelter at the fairgrounds anyway and were gearing up to fight it. They claimed an animal shelter wasn’t compatible with the fairgrounds and would compromise its intended purpose.

“It would have negatively impacted any possibility for future expansion of the fairground facilities,” said Nancy Davis, who serves on the county fairgrounds board. “There is also a concern from the marketability standpoint. Right or wrong, it would have impacted the attractiveness of the facility for event planners.”

That’s something the fairgrounds can’t afford. It has been on shaky financial footing for years, barely able to bring in enough on facility rentals to break even on its overhead.

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Meanwhile, however, the commissioners saw the empty field as a prime location. For starters, the field is rarely used, and besides, there are other empty fields at the fairgrounds should empty fields be needed for an event.

Other pros: it’s flat, has water and sewer and is in the geographic center of the county. Moreover, the price was right since the county already owns it.

Fairgrounds board member Dorothy Marrow said she understands the commissioners’ rationale.

“They have to try to save taxpayers’ money, and that was one of their forefront ideas,” Marrow said.

Nonetheless, Marrow wasn’t fond of it. One of her concerns was the fairgrounds’ image. The empty field flanks the main entrance, and the animal shelter would have dominated the view of the fairgrounds from the road and when pulling in.

“It would take away from the aesthetic appearance of the fairgrounds,” Marrow said.

For the record, Davis said she is for building a new animal shelter.

“The facility we have is really no longer sufficient for the county’s needs,” said Davis, who runs Creature Comforts boarding kennel and is also on the board of the WNC Dog Fanciers Association. “I am convinced, however, that Haywood County Fairgrounds property was not the best option.”


Stumbling block

But the philosophical debate over the fairgrounds site was a moot point in the end. A legal clause in the property deed knocked it out of the running as a contender.

A deed restriction stipulates it must be used “solely for fairgrounds, agricultural buildings and for recreational uses only.” The clause was attached to the deed when the county bought the property in 1990.

A letter signed by “Friends of the Haywood County Fairgrounds” was written to commissioners last month, reminding them of the deed limitation.

It’s possible the county could have gotten around the deed restrictions, however, and appeared to be working out an arrangement to that end. Commissioners discussed the county’s legal options in a closed-door meeting last week, citing attorney-client privilege. 

But commissioners decided not to push it. The county had initially scheduled a public hearing to hear views on the fairground site next week. Fairground supporters had organized a crowd to speak against it. But the hearing was called off, and the county instead began looking at other sites.

The county may have found one already. This week, the county drafted a property option on a tract off Jones Cove Road near the Haywood Regional Medical Center campus.

“The county manager has executed a contract that requires approval by the county commissioners within 30 days. Assuming that approval is granted we enter a 60-day due diligence phase,” Swanger said.

The price listed in the contract is $233,000 for a 2.5 acre tract.

The county approved $325,000 at its last meeting to pay for the planning, architectural design and engineering. The design and engineering fees are typically 10 percent of a project’s cost. Extrapolate that and you get a final price tag of more than $3 million. The county has been reluctant to share a cost estimate given the early stages, but Swanger confirmed the math as legit.

The estimate doesn’t include the additional expense of buying land.


Not out of the woods

The fairgrounds supporters may have defeated the animal shelter plan, but they haven’t escaped the larger issue: keeping the fairgrounds afloat financially.

“We are so close every month we can barely break even,” said Katie Swanger, the part-time events manager.

The fairgrounds rents out the buildings and covered arena for events, and relies on that income to cover its costs — including utilities, grounds upkeep, insurance and so on. But it’s not booking enough events to cover its own overhead.

Katie Swanger said the fairgrounds is a tremendous community resource in theory.

“The potential is vast. It is huge,” Katie Swanger said.

But in reality, there are several factors working against it. Depending on the type of event, the cost ranges from around $450 to $850 a day to rent one of the buildings and $700 to $1,300 for the covered arena.

While reasonable given the facility, the price is a deal killer for many events. Meanwhile, lack of funding for marketing or upgrades to the facility — even new folding tables and chairs — creates a catch-22.

“A lot of people don’t know we exist but we don’t have the funds to do a large marketing campaign,” Swanger said. “And we can’t afford to upgrade anything, so we are working with an older, outdated facility that is not drawing in the clientele.”

The fairground’s underuse could be one reason the county commissioners set their sights on its empty field in the first place. Commissioners may have weathered the naysayers and chosen it anyway had it not been for the deed hang-up.

The relationship between the county and fairgrounds board is a muddled one. The fairgrounds board used to have more autonomy, functioning as a stand-alone nonprofit, albeit with county subsidies. 

But the fair board lost its independence a few years ago when it got in a financial bind and went hat in hand to the county. The fairgrounds was unable to pay off its construction loan on the covered arena. The county authorized a $700,000 bailout, but in exchange, took control of the fairgrounds — sort of.

The county now owns all the buildings at the fairgrounds, as well as the land, and the fair board is now appointed by the commissioners.

But the nonprofit framework still exists, and the fairgrounds’ daily operations are still run under the nonprofit, even though the fair board is technically a county entity.

“We are in a very unique position as a board,” Davis said. The board is beholden to the county, yet expected to function as a self-sustaining nonprofit.

The county used to subsidized the fairgrounds operations but now the only financial support it gets is for building maintenance and upkeep. Still, that is something the fairgrounds simply couldn’t afford to do on its own.

“If it hadn’t been for the county graciously helping with that, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” Marrow said.

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