The "out-and-out theft" of a Columbia sports venue

COLUMBIA, Mo 2/4/18 (Feature) -- "I’d really hoped the Boone County Commission could strike a practical, profitable deal for the lease of the Boone County Fairgrounds," Columbia Daily Tribune columnist Forrest Rose wrote nearly 18 years ago.  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

A 6 year, $18 million sales tax known as EPIC that failed at the ballot in 2014.  

And now, what some are calling the "out-and-out theft" of a Columbia Parks sports venue voters approved for south of town that county government now wants north of town, at the Fairgrounds. 

Ridiculous offer

The failures started when then-Presiding Commissioner Don Stamper led the charge to buy the Fairgrounds in 1999 for $2.6 million from the bankrupt Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (BCAMS). 

The fails continued with the ultra-low bid to lease the Fairgrounds Rose wrote about, orchestrated by current Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill

It was "a ridiculous offer," said Inside Columbia publisher Fred Parry.  "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."

(Fast forward:  As Southern District Commissioner today, Parry is leading the charge to "steal" the sports venue from Columbia taxpayers.)

Commissioners decided to ask the public for input.  "The Boone County Fairgrounds can be a sustainable venture if the County makes changes in management, fiscal policy and marketing," Service Core of Retired Executives advised 12 years ago.   

Ideas came and went; criticism intensified.  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, an activist group.

Commission split

Though he won the election 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. 

Parry's predecessor, Karen 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 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 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." 

Developer handout

Evidence suggests County Commissioners bought the Fairgrounds for two reasons that had little to do with creating a community asset.   It was a good ol' boy handout. 

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.    

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. 

Nearly 300 acres next door is waiting for the Fairgounds to become the final anchor.
The namesake of the Rose Music Hall, Forrest Rose was right about the Fairgrounds wheelers and dealers:  Waters, Sapp, Stamper, Atwill, and now Parry.    

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