Facilities rental rates too high, some say

A handful of people upset with the Columbia County Fair Board for charging local nonprofit groups to hold fundraisers at the county event complex are seeking a change to the practice.

But fair supporters have countered that to strip the fair of one of its few revenue sources would leave gaps in its budget, and make it even more removed from the possibility of growing into a self-sustaining operation.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners, responding to the criticism leveled against the fair in the aftermath of the charity events, said it intends to meet with the fair board after the New Year to reach a compromise on the nonprofit rental rates at the fair pavilion.

'We all three need to understand more about that operation and what exactly it is they're doing, and why they're doing it and how,' said Commissioner Rita Bernhard, who has largely worked as the de facto liaison with the fair.

Critics argue that the fair board and fair administrator have been too rigid with pavilion rental rates to nonprofits, especially at a time when the county and its residents have placed a strong value on charity in the wake of the extensive storm damage earlier this month.

'I think this is a bad PR thing for the fair,' said Stephanie Kleppel of Warren.

Tammy Maygra, a Deer Island resident, agrees.

'I said, my god, reach out a helping hand,' Maygra said. 'I think it's a slap in the face.'

Kleppel approached the county commissioners on Dec. 12 with concerns about the fair operations. The following week she said she was outraged at the fair board and its staff's resilience to loosening the rates.

'I find it shocking, because I don't see any other agencies in the county acting that way,' Kleppel said.

The rental rate is $435 per day. The Kiwanis club, which sponsors the Christmas Food Basket charity, and the Columbia River Fire and Rescue, sponsor of the Toy 'n' Joy auction, are two of the nonprofit groups that had sought use of the pavilion for holiday charities.

Toy 'n' Joy organizers ultimately moved the event to Buccini Hall in St. Helens, a move widely considered to have occurred due to the pavilion rental rate.

The fair did lower its rates for the Kiwanis, coming down to $800 for four days for the nonprofit to hold its charity. But even at the reduced rate, there remains grumbling that the rental charge for the pavilion is too high.

Fair Administrator Ronda Courtney said the fair rate has been unchanged since she started in the position three years ago, and that it is a staple source of fair income.

'I do think that we do some charitable things, but we are also charged with the mission of making this work out here,' Courtney said. 'Rentals are part of what we do, and since I've been here the pavilion has been $425.'

'We've got such a small budget, every penny counts,' she said.

Fair facilities are being used for storage of food and goods donated to the Vernonia flood relief effort. Also, Courtney pointed to the donated time and effort to host the annual Easter egg hunt, an event that occurs largely as a cost to the fair.

'People I think just overlook some of those things that we do,' Courtney said.

There is also a question of fairness: If a cost break is given to one group, it then will be asked from every group, Bernhard said.

Bernhard said she believes much of the angst is fueled by political hostility and a personality clash between the fair board, fair administrator and a small sect of the community opposed to them.

'This same group has been after the fair, and I will say it that way because it's true, and they have been for whatever reason for a long time,' Bernhard said. 'If these people have some ideas, if they have some concerns, why don't they work with the fair board to help resolve them?'

Fair funding

Fairs are unique entities in the state of Oregon. Members of the fair board, the governing body for the fair, are appointed by the county commission. In turn, the fair board has the option of hiring an administrator, someone who manages the day-to-day operations.

While the administrator receives salary and compensation from the county general fund, the county commission is removed from the management of that person, who instead is under the purview of the fair board.

Similarly, fair funding is a dicey enterprise, especially in Columbia County where there is the absence of hotel and motels, and an absence of taxes on those industries, used to subsidize other revenue streams.

A percentage of state lottery dollars is legislatively allocated from a state economic development fund to a county fair fund totaling around $1.5 million annually, divided equally among Oregon's county fairs. Columbia County Fair receives around $40,000 each year.

Columbia County government does have a stake in the fair operations, however. In 1998, it approved a controversial ordinance granting the fair additional funds earned from a property foreclosure, called locally as the Carcus Creek property, as an effort to hire staff and achieve self-sustainability, a goal that remains elusive for the fair organizers.

Today, the county allocates $55,000 out of its economic development pool of money to subsidize the fair's revenue stream.

Some efforts to earn additional resources for the fair include a proposal to host music concerts at the venue. Neighbor concerns over noise and increased traffic resulted in a decision to move the concerts to a property on Highway 30 owned by the Morse Bros. aggregate company.

An agreement worked out between the concert organizer and the county had provided around $40,000 annually, though dwindling concert events have reduced that figure to around $20,000.

Other ventures include the county's negotiation with the Columbia River People's Utility District to sell a piece of property at the fairgrounds that would be used to build a power substation. Additionally, launch of the fair's Web site in 2006 is starting to draw interest from Portland for special events, Courtney said.

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