The Benton County Fair Board voted 7-0 Monday night to take the next step on preliminary plans for major changes to the county fairgrounds, including converting the dirt-floored Benton Arena to a concrete-floored exhibition hall — despite ongoing opposition from dog and horse groups.
Specifically, the vote directed consultants working on an update of the fairgrounds master plan to develop a more detailed version of one of two conceptual proposals for presentation to the Benton County Board of Commissioners next month. The proposal is to include rough cost estimates and a list of project priorities.
The conceptual proposal favored by the Fair Board calls for a number of changes at the fairgrounds, including:
• Expand the Benton Arena and convert it to a concrete-floored exhibition hall, something Fairgrounds Manager Lynne McKee has identified as crucial to the venue’s financial viability.
• Expand and remodel the auditorium, including the addition of a commercial kitchen.
• Add a wedding barn.
• Build a new covered arena.
• Remove existing livestock barns to create a new livestock pavilion.
• Create new entry plazas for the fairgrounds.
• Improve the flow of pedestrian traffic through the site.
“I think your greatest opportunity in terms of investment and return is in that kitchen upgrade … followed by the conversion of the arena into an exhibition hall,” said Rod Markin of Markin Consulting, who took part in the meeting via conference call.
According to estimates presented to the board, an exhibition hall could generate anywhere from $71,000 to $134,000 in new revenue each year, even taking into account lost revenue from events that are currently held at the arena, such as equestrian competitions and dog agility trials.
The auditorium improvements are projected to bring in $50,000-$74,000 a year in new income.
Fifteen people sat in the audience at Monday’s meeting, nearly all of them members of dog or horse groups that use the dirt-floored arena. Several of them got up to speak against the conversion proposal during the public comment period.
Lynne Miller, a 4-H club leader and a member of the local equestrian community, said she was “really disappointed” in the lack of detail provided in the proposal.
Sylvia Moore, a past president and current board member of the Willamette Agility Group, said putting a concrete floor in the arena would make the facility completely unsuitable for dog trials.
“We wouldn’t be able to stay here,” she told the board.
And Cheryl Henning, another member of the Willamette Agility Group board, said simply putting a roof over the rodeo ring would be a poor substitute for the enclosed, dirt-floored Benton Arena.
“Who’s going to want to ride their horse or run their dog in a cold, wet, open-sided arena?” she asked.
Board Chair Trudy Overlin noted that the board doesn’t have the money to begin making any changes right away but added that “it’s important to have some type of a plan and some type of a budget.”
Vice Chair Mark Baumgartner said he sympathized with the arena supporters but has to consider the needs of the county as a whole.
“I don’t think our current model is sustainable,” he said, “and something has to change.”
After the meeting ended, Miller summed up the feelings of many longtime arena users.
“We fully understand the fairgrounds needs to change,” she said. “We just want to make sure they don’t disenfranchise people who have been supporting the fairgrounds for many years.”
McKee said the consultants would present a more detailed version of the proposal to the Benton County Board of Commissioners on March 5. That meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the county boardrooms, 205 NW Fifth St. in Corvallis.
After the county commissioners weigh in on the master plan update, it will come back to the Fair Board for additional consideration before going back to the commissioners for adoption.