SALEM, Ohio – A new chapter has begun in the 14-year feud between the Summit County Agricultural Society and the county’s government.
Summit County Council and the county’s agricultural society, or fair board, agreed Dec. 3 to a new 10-year lease and operating agreement for the fairgrounds and arena in an attempt to end the lingering money issues between the two groups.
In the early 1990s, the fair board succeeded in getting the county to issue bonds to finance a $1.4 million arena on the fairgrounds along Howe Road in Tallmadge, according to county finance director Linda Phelps.
The board said that in addition to fairtime activities, the 200-by-300-foot steel building would also be valuable for horse shows and other events. The board planned that rentals would help cover its cost.
Phelps said despite several events held in the arena, the fair board couldn’t cover its $100,000-per-year payments to the county. In fact, since 1993, the board has repaid only $110,566 of what it owed, with the last payment made seven years ago, Phelps said.
“In order to cover the payment, they had to have high rental rates, and nobody could afford it,” Phelps said.
“Plain and simple, the board said it didn’t have the money to pay for the arena.”
Fair board president Lee Crites acknowledged the board’s payment shortfalls over the past decade, but said it wasn’t for a lack of events held in the arena. Crites said the structure hosted multiple gun and knife shows, motocross, tractor pulls, plus craft shows and flea markets year-round.
“We were busy, especially from September to May,” Crites said.
The problem in paying back the county came because of operational costs.
“People don’t realize what it costs to operate something like that. Cost for electric and gas to heat it is tremendous, plus you have to pay someone to clean it and take care of it. It’s a lot more than you think,” Crites said.
The county and board eventually sued one another, and the courts allowed the fair board to continue operating the grounds while the two groups negotiated, according to the agricultural society’s state audit.
Negotiations between the two groups continued for years, Phelps said.
The county council voted several times in 2006 to forgive the fair board’s debt, but then-county executive James McCarthy vetoed those attempts.
Current county executive Russell Pry made the resolution “a personal matter,” Phelps said.
Lee Crites said the board is very happy it and the county have reached a mutual agreement, which will hopefully spur more events in the arena.
“For so long, groups were afraid to contract their event there. They heard we were in trouble with the county,” Crites said. Groups were hesitant to book the arena for fears their event could be canceled if the county took back the arena, he explained.
“Now that there’s an agreement, it should be easier to get those contracts, and it’s going to be easier to operate.”
Under the latest agreement, the county will forgive the debt in its entirety if the fair board meets certain criteria over the next 10 years, Linda Phelps said.
The biggest goal is to get the board to develop an operations plan for the fairgrounds and arena with help from the Ohio State University Extension.
The board will also be subject to participation in reviews of its operations and implementation of policies and procedures by the county’s Department of Internal Auditing.
The county will retain ownership of the arena and fairgrounds but give the fair board an option to renew its lease in 2017.
Crites said the fair board will probably hire a manager to take care of the arena’s events and upkeep and meet the county’s requirements.
Linda Phelps said the county’s bonds to build the arena have been paid through property taxes, with landowners already fronting $1.38 million of the expenses.
By the time the arena is paid off, in 2014, taxpayers will have paid an additional $1.1 million for the structure, she said.
State records show the fair board’s money troubles went beyond the arena issue.
The most recent state audit of the board, from 2004-2005, shows the board operated at a loss of $49,001 for the 2005 fair. State support, donations and contributions kept that year’s cash balance in the black.
The auditor’s reports from 2001 to 2005 also show the board received more than $100,000 in loans and donations from board members to pay legal costs, vendors and fair expenses.
Crites said most Ohio agricultural societies don’t make money on county fairs, and that “money has to come from other places.”
In addition, state audit records show the agricultural society had collected but not remitted to the IRS nearly $88,000 in state and federal payroll and Medicare taxes for employees November 2000-2005.
“As far as I know, those are all paid up now,” Crites said.
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