Farmer City Fair: 2007 Fair might be last if lease isn't renewed
Six-year-old Jacob Smith of Bloomington watched the hot rods zoom down the straightaway last week at the Farmer City Raceway.
Jacob rooted for the red car, and his dad cheered for the blue one.
"Remember all these sights and sounds, Jacob," said his dad, Jeremy. "You need to be able to tell your children and grandchildren what this was like if the Farmer City Raceway goes away."
An ongoing dispute between the Farmer City Fair Association, which operates the raceway, and the city council has escalated to such a degree that fair association president Bill Rutledge warns both the fairgrounds and the raceway could cease to exist next summer.
"It's a logical assumption that 2007 could be the last year for the fair," he said.
The problem lies in a convoluted mix of land ownership and leases.
The city owns the land the fairgrounds and raceway are on, and it leases them to the fair association. Meanwhile, the fair association owns a recreation area on the south side of town with a playground and ball fields, called South Park. The city leases South Park from the fair association.
All was fine between the two entities until the fair association began looking to the future: Its lease on the fairgrounds expires in November 2009.
The association first proposed exchanging South Park with the city for ownership of the fairgrounds. Its second proposal was to extend both the fairgrounds and South Park leases for 20 years or longer.
But on July 10, the city council voted 4-1 to reject both proposals.
City Manager David Joswiak said the Illinois Municipal Code prohibits trading the fairgrounds for the park because the two don't have a similar value.
The fairground sits on 49 acres that Joswiak said has a market value of at least $200,000, or more, considering it is zoned commercial. He said the per-acre price of other commercial properties sold in that area indicate the property could be valued for as much as $500,000.
South Park is 45 acres that – because of its location in a flood plain – has a lesser assessed value. Joswiak said other property in that area recently sold for $1,500 to $2,000 an acre, which would put a value of about $90,000 on the park land.
Rutledge said if the fair association disbands someday, the city could take back ownership of the land, as compensation for the difference in property values.
But Joswiak said even that "does not offset the considerable disparity between the fair-market values" of the fairgrounds and South Park."
He said the council rejected a long-term lease because the city needs short-term options in case an industry or business becomes interested in buying the land for development.
But Rutledge said the fairgrounds and raceway are already an economic magnet for the community. He estimates the fair draws 17,000 to 20,000 a year. And the raceway draws about 40,000 people a year for its 24 races between April and September, said Don Hammer of Clinton, promoter for TruSpeed Inc., which subleases the track.
"We get drivers and spectators from Wisconsin, Ohio, California and all over the Midwest," Hammer said. "Many of these people stay in local motels, shop in local stores, purchase gas in the local gas stations and eat in the area restaurants."
Rutledge also cited an economic impact study by the University of Illinois Extension in 2000, which estimated the annual economic impact of the fairgrounds at $3.8 million.
"I feel with the success of our racetrack under a new promoter, we now provide in excess of $4 million annually to the Farmer City economy," Rutledge said.
Meanwhile, the city has proposed buying South Park from the fair association for $70,000, which Joswiak says is the fair-market value of the land.
The 24-member fair association board likely will consider the city's offer when it meets Aug. 2, but board member Rick Corneglio said he plans to vote against it.
"Our primary concern is to come up with something that gives us a long-term future, and the city council's proposal does not do that," Corneglio said.
Rutledge said he is disappointed with the city council's rejection of both offers.
"We feel there is nothing positive for the fair, raceway, South Park or the community," Rutledge said.
Though the current fairground lease doesn't expire until 2009, terms of the lease require that the land be free of structures and restored to farmland. Rutledge said it could take 24 to 36 months to tear down the fairground facilities and the raceway, so his staff might need to begin dismantling the facilities after the 2007 season.
Rutledge said one option the fair association still has at its disposal is to end the lease with the city for South Park. The park land might be needed for a new fair site if the city terminates the lease at the current fairgrounds.
"Giving a 60-day notice to the city is an option – and ending the fair is an option," Rutledge said. "Based on the decision the city has made, we're going to turn our attention to other available opportunities for us. We can't make our deal any sweeter for the city."
City council member Joe Newberry said the council's rejection of the association's offers "isn't etched in stone."
"It's a beginning point, not an ending point," Newberry said.
Ted "Jed" Reynolds, the lone council member who didn't reject the association's offer, said the council should have gotten more public input beforehand.
Reynolds said the vote took place after a series of closed-door meetings, and the public didn't find out about the proposal until the night of the vote.
"We need more public input before we do anything," Reynolds said. "I support the racetrack, and I support South Park. The other council members don't see it that way."
Hammer said the city council should put an advisory ballot question on the fairgrounds, the track and South Park on the November ballot.
"I think it is sad the city doesn't let the people vote on it," he said.
Joswiak said there is no reason why the council couldn't put a question on the ballot – as long as it is advisory.
"We are limited to what the law allows us to do," Joswiak said. "The municipal code is pretty specific as far as the steps to sell property. Even if the citizens unanimously said to give the fairgrounds to the fair association, the city council still would have to follow the law and not allow it to happen."
The whole issue could come to focus in next spring's 2007 elections, when three of the four council members who voted to reject the fair association's offers are up for re-election.
"This isn't an issue that will go away," Reynolds said.