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County fair directors exit surprises some

Fallout - Don Hillman was in the middle of a spat with commissioners

Don Hillman's resignation from his post as director of the Washington County Fair took a lot of fair watchers by surprise.

Neither Hillman nor his bosses are saying much about his March 22 announcement.

County Fair Board Chair Herb Hirst said Hillman had already reduced his hours to part-time, and bowing out completely before the summer events season was logical timing.

'He had decided that he wanted to move on to some other things,' Hirst said.

But Washington County Commissioner Andy Duyck suspects that a recent spat between county commissioners and their appointees to the fair board over buildings at the fair complex in Hillsboro may have sped up Hillman's exit.

'I think, honestly, Don is looking at the whole situation and saying, 'It's pretty hot here and I'm not appreciated and it's probably best if I move somewhere where I am appreciated,'' Duyck said.

Hillman's tenure as director, which began in 2001, was rocky in recent years.

In 2006, a controversial proposal to revamp the fairgrounds in concert with developer Opus Northwest fell apart amid organized opposition from the county Fair Boosters, a group of about 200 who volunteer time and money for the annual fair, and neighbors.

After the Opus deal died, fair board members started talks with a firm to lease 25 acres of the 101-acre fairgrounds to a Royal Faires, Inc., which hoped to hold an annual renaissance festival on the property.

That proposal also drew frustration from the Boosters who feared the traditional agricultural focus of the annual fair would be undermined by permanent structures.

The second bout of controversy led Washington County Chairman Tom Brian to form a revitalization task force, separate from the fair board, charged with hammering out a master plan for the site.

The renaissance fair is still on the table, but now the $55 million revitalization plan also includes a new 120,000 square-foot exhibit hall that could draw conventions, trade shows and high school graduations.

Once the master plan was drafted, Brian and Duyck secured a verbal agreement from Hirst and the members of the fair board that no buildings would be built or demolished until the plan could move forward (which still needs to be formally approved by the taskforce, the fair board and county commissioners).

But early in March, the fair board decided to let the Hillsboro Fire Department do a test burn on a building, known as the Rodeo Museum, on the fairgrounds, prompting Duyck to wonder if the previous agreement was going to be kept.

'We felt that we had a sort of informal agreement that no buildings would be added or removed until the master plan had been approved,' Duyck said.

Then the board voted to build a new pig barn to honor Brian Herinckx, a longtime fair supporter who died in a January car accident.

Neither Brian nor Hillman were available to comment, but Hirst said the pig barn vote angered Brian, who told Hirst he didn't want any new buildings going up until the master plan could be set in stone.

'He wasn't in total agreement with the swine barn, but that's the way things go,' Hirst said. 'He understands ... that the fair board has the full control over the management of the fairgrounds.'

While fair board members are appointed by the county commissioners, they comprise an independent board that makes decisions on its own.

Hirst said that regardless of the reasons, Hillman's sudden departure is a big loss. 'Frankly, he's done more for the county fair than anyone previously,' he said.