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FAIRGROUNDS FAIL, PART THREE: A developer handout in need of a taxpayer bailout

"No stronger Good-Ol’-Boy network exists in Boone County"

COLUMBIA, Mo 7/20/14 (Feature) -- "I’d really hoped the Boone County Commission could strike a practical, profitable deal for the lease of the Boone County Fairground," beloved Columbia Daily Tribune columnist Forrest Rose wrote.   Instead, Commissioners struck a deal "that would take more than 200 years for the county to break even."

It was the first of many deals, plans, concoctions, schemes, and notions County Commissioners entertained to keep the Fairgrounds afloat.   A hockey rink.  A baseball stadium for the minor league Mavericks.   An ice arena.

Buying it for $2.6 million from the bankrupt Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (BCAMS), they are asking voters August 5th to pass a 6 year, $12-18 million sales tax to bail it out.  

Known as EPIC, the new tax follows 15 years of epic failure.

The failures started with the ultra-low bid to lease the Fairgrounds Rose was writing about, orchestrated by none other than current Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill.   It was "a ridiculous offer," said Fred Parry, the Inside Columbia publisher who opposed the Fairgrounds purchase.  "The Boone County Fairground is not a financially viable option for Boone County, or for the taxpayers of Boone County.   This is unfortunately a financial issue that is not going to go away."

The County "had no plan for the property," the Trib reported, after Commissioners decided to ask the public for input -- again.  Presiding Commissioner Don Stamper and Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller asked every civic group in the county what to do next.

The Service Core of Retired Executives even weighed in.   "The Boone County Fairgrounds can be a sustainable venture if the County makes changes in management, fiscal policy and marketing," they advised nine years ago.   

The ideas came and went but the criticism remained.   County Commissioners were "naïve, or much worse, to believe that a business losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year would produce substantial income," said Boone County Citizens for Good Government.

And though he won the election based largely on Fairgrounds opposition, Stamper's successor Keith Schnarre fared no better.  Seven years after its purchase, Commissioners were "still split on ideas how to manage it."

Schnarre wanted to hire a Fairgrounds manager.  Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin wanted to partner with the City of Columbia.  Miller wanted to hire a consultant for $25,000.  "This will get us the information we need to see what opportunities are there," she said.

The city partnership plan quickly failed, as Columbia Tribune associate publisher and Fairgrounds booster Vicki Russell sparred with Miller over it.     

Fed up with the lack of progress, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren broke ranks and suggested selling the white elephant.   "It already did take money away from other needs -- over $2 million away," Noren said.  "I’m not saying it was a bad investment, but we have yet to make that a good investment."

When Schnarre also expressed interest in selling, Russell's husband, Trib publisher Hank Waters called it "a terrible idea the public surely would not support.  The public space is a vital community asset." 

But evidence suggests County Commissioners bought the Fairgrounds for two reasons that had little to do with creating a community asset.   It was a developer handout now in need of a taxpayer bailout. 

Prominent developer Billy Sapp -- Stamper's mentor and chief supporter -- had loaned the Fairgrounds' previous owner, BCAMS, $1 million He was chomping at the bit to get repaid while BCAMS was going broke and the County's purchase promised to make him whole.    

Other developers, meanwhile, have planned major subdivisions and commercial construction using a transformed Fairgrounds, two city parks donated by developers, and Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary as nearby anchors.  Tuscany Ridge, developed by Wal-Mart heiress Paige Laurie's company, lay just south of the Fairgrounds. 

The namesake of the little park next to Mojo's, Forrest Rose had it right
about Fairgrounds leadership.    

"No stronger Good-Ol’-Boy network exists in Boone County," Rose said.  "They have operated for years in the sort of secrecy that amounts almost to sneakiness.   Public participation was never welcomed until the time came to pay for the bailout." 



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