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Fairgrounds plan on ice after deal falls apart

Developer decides to pull plug after flap stalls proposal for county fair complex in Hillsboro

The protracted controversy that ensnared plans to modernize the Washington County Fair Complex has prompted the Portland developer to back out of its proposed redevelopment project.

On Oct. 5, Opus Northwest chose to end its two-year partnership with the county rather than extend it for another six months at the cost of $50,000.

It became apparent nothing was moving forward,' John Bartell, vice-president of Opus Northwest, told the News-Times last week.

Under the failed proposal, the county would have sold or leased most of the 100-acre property to Opus Northwest and used the resulting revenues to build a new pavilion, exhibition hall and other facilities on 20 remaining acres.

This concept was fiercely opposed by the Fair Boosters, a non-profit group that supports and promotes the annual county fair, and others who wanted to keep ownership of the entire parcel in public hands.

The future of the fairgrounds was supposed to be decided two months ago, when the Hillsboro Planning Commission was expected to rule on a zoning amendment that would have allowed commercial use of the land, opening the door to Opus Northwest's planned retail development.

However, the Washington County Board of Commissioners said the antagonism surrounding the issue was harming the community and called off the meeting. The commissioners cited vandalism and other instances of hostility directed at Fair Board members - who preside over the fairgrounds and the fair itself - as examples that the debate had grown out-of-hand.

'It's a divisive issue,' Bartell said, adding that Opus Northwest was uncomfortable about being drawn into the battle. 'We were trying to be the solution to the problem, not to be the problem.'

Now that the Opus deal is dead, the county commissioners and the Fair Board will need to find another way to boost revenues at the fairgrounds, which will require about $435,000 in public funding this year.

While it is generally agreed that the property is being underutilized, the quest to fund fairground renovations has long been unsuccessful.

'In the last 20 years, there have been a number of processes and all of them have failed,' said Commissioner Andy Duyck, noting that after a $40 million bond levy was defeated by voters in 2002, the public/private partnership was seen as a viable alternative.

One of the main problems with the undertaking was that the general public felt left out of the loop, Duyck said. Although any final plan would have been subject to hearings, Duyck said the perception was that decisions were being made behind closed doors.

'Clearly, the next process will be much more transparent,' Duyck said.

Despite the unsuccessful venture with Opus Northwest, Duyck said the county has not ruled out cooperating with private firms to redevelop the fairgrounds in the future. Other options may include a partnership between the county and the city of Hillsboro, another ballot initiative or the launch of a private foundation, as suggested by the Boosters.

'Nothing is off the table,' Duyck said.

For their part, the Boosters view the deal's collapse as a win for the underdog. To gain popular support for retaining all 100 acres of the property, earlier in the summer the group renovated buildings, pruned trees, and commissioned a water feature on the fairgrounds.

'A lot of credit goes to the Boosters, but also to other parts of the public who had the tenacity to have their voices heard,' said Lyle Spiesschaert, the Boosters' spokesman. 'This illustrates that the power of the public word can make a difference.'

Spiesschaert, a Forest Grove farmer, said the Boosters intend to take an active role in the planning process.

They're now suggesting that funds the fair complex receives from the county's hotel/motel tax should be reallocated for capital development and that private donations can be used to launch a foundation to benefit the fairgrounds.

In addition, the Boosters have called for the formation of a 'revitalization committee' to update the fairground's master plan, which was completed in 1994.

Don Hillman, executive director of the fair complex, said that for any project proposal to gain a foothold, it must be shown to be financially sustainable and supported by market analysis. 'Everybody has great ideas but no way to fund it,' he said.

Currently, the amenities at the fair complex are outdated and fail to attract an adequate number of customers who want to rent the facilities, said Hillman, who supported the Opus proposal. Part of the plan's appeal was that the new, up-to-date buildings would have brought more events to the fairgrounds, generating an estimated $750,000 in annual profits, Hillman said.

By comparison, he said, the fair complex lost more than $113,000 on the 2006 fair and another $322,000 during the rest of the year.