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Fair rate strategy a two-way street

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As fairgrounds go, the Columbia County Event Complex is one of the finest facilities in the state of Oregon. It is outstanding not only for its spaciousness, which at 70 acres is one of the largest in the state, but also because of amenities including a full compliment of livestock barns, rodeo arena, auto race track, generous office space, antique farm machinery museum, unique pavilion, impressive demonstration garden and abundant parking.

The complex is a tremendous community asset that has provided many educational, economic, recreational and civic opportunities for local residents over the years. Now some have called management of the facility into question, accusing the fair board of price-gouging civic and humanitarian organizations on facilities rental rates.

Like all physical assets, the event complex needs ongoing maintenance and capital improvements if it is to continue to effectively carry out its multifaceted mission to the citizens of Columbia County.

Unfortunately, that task is becoming more difficult in the face of the ever-tightening county budget, upon which the complex relies on for approximately 20 percent of its annual operating expenses. County general fund contributions are down, facilities rental income is down, fair admission receipts are down, concession fees are down and sponsorship sales are down. All told, the fair board has $28,000 less to work with than it did in 2006, which doesn't bode well in the face of escalating fuel, power and insurance costs. Most organizations need to increase year-over-year revenue to survive.

As a result of this financial squeeze, the fair board has been unable to increase its maintenance budget even though the grandstands and pavilion are in dire need of repairs. Ignoring those needs will only make matters worse. At the same time the fair board has drastically reduced advertising spending, which may be why attendance is flat to off slightly.

This convergence of financial forces looks like the beginning of a downward spiral - falling revenue and increasing costs - that will likely accelerate as maintenance is postponed and capital improvements neglected.

In light of these circumstances, the calls for lower facilities rental fees on the part of a few disgruntled citizens are a bit naïve and/or shortsighted, and the timing couldn't be worse.

Certainly the fair board and county commissioners need to be sensitive to the nonprofits that utilize the event complex for a multitude of homegrown causes. However, as stewards of this public resource they must also be mindful of their fiduciary obligations to the owners of the event complex to avoid further deterioration of the facilities or a bailout at taxpayers' expense, neither of which is acceptable. Many nonprofits already receive one taxpayer subsidy in the form of a 501(c)3 exemption from the Internal Revenue Service, which no doubt is sufficient benevolence on the part of the government for many taxpayers.

The focus of all concerned needs to be on putting the event complex on a stable financial footing and catching up on overdue maintenance while moving ahead with a capital investment program. In addition, a contingency or 'rainy day' fund should also be established. These are the measures that will ensure a healthy, sustainable future for the event complex and the people who use it.

So at this juncture the question isn't where to cut costs - those have already been reduced to the point where they're having a contrary effect on income: the point of marginal diminishing returns. The solution lies in generating additional revenue, whether it is through new activities like baseball tournaments, RV camping, and driving golf balls; forging partnerships with schools, clubs, and parks and recreation districts; or writing facilities improvement grants.

Do civic organizations deserve some consideration for their wonderful contributions to the community? Yes, absolutely, and perhaps the fair board's facilities rental schedule needs to have a friendly 'local nonprofit' rate. At the same time civic organizations and individuals need to be sensitive to the financial realities of the event complex and the county.