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Boosters spruce up county fair complex

With chipped paint and dilapidated roofing, the buildings at the Washington County Fair Complex were in need of a facelift earlier this year.

The Fair Boosters - a group dedicated to upgrading the facilities - worried the fairgrounds' shabbiness, in addition to being visually unappealing, would be used as an argument to move ahead with a proposed redevelopment of the property.

So, starting in May, a crew of volunteers began to spruce things up in time for the County Fair, which runs July 27-30.

They painted the barns green, dressed the doors with trim and pressure-washed the roofs. They installed a large water feature, pruned the trees and generally got things looking top-shape.

'We're trying to make people realize what they've got here is an asset,' said Tom Black, lead organizer of the Boosters' beautification project.

At the request of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, the Boosters last year introduced a three-phased plan as an alternative to developer Opus Northwest's vision of dramatic redevelopment of the fair complex.

Opus' plan proposes selling or leasing most of the 100 acre property to Opus Northwest, with 20 acres devoted to an exposition center and pavilion at the eastern end of the fairground property.

Instead of replacing the current fair complex with commercial development and relocating facilities, the Boosters hope to retain all the land and add more structures over time.

'We believe it's a community facility, but the county apparently has different plans to make it a profit center,' said Black, an assistant operations manager at the Geopier foundation company. 'The bottom line is, it's community versus dollars.'

If the Boosters' plan prevails, their next step will be to demolish a handful of the fairground horse barns and use the space to build a 20,000 square foot community pavilion. The final phase of their proposal would entail construction of a 60,000-square-foot event center on the property.

Funding for the buildings would come from private donations, which is a critical point of the organization's plan, said Lyle Spiesschaert, a member of the Boosters who farms near Forest Grove.

This way, the county would not need to lease or sell any portion of the fair complex property to finance development.

'We're showing them there's another way to do this stuff,' Spiesschaert said. 'The answer is to set up a foundation with a board of trustees to manage capital growth.'

Phase one of the Boosters' project cost roughly $15,000, but the organization has raised about $50,000 from donors such as the Washington County Farm Bureau, he said. Apart from the physical improvements to the fairground, the group also plans to retain funds for marketing and, if needed, legal expenses.

Although managers of the fair complex have often clashed with the Boosters over development plans, they say they'repleased with the outcome of the first phase, 'We're always happy when someone comes forward with donated time, money and supplies,' said executive director Don Hillman.

However, Hillman said that Opus's proposal makes more sense in the long run than does the Boosters' plan. Unlike the Washington County of the 1950s, when the complex opened, the annual fair is no longer the focal point of festivities in the region.

'Our business model has to change,' he said. 'We need to have multiple uses throughout the year, serve the larger population and different demographics, as well as embrace the traditional uses.'

For their part, Spiesschaert and Black hope to prevail in the arena of public opinion.

'What we really want is public debate,' Spiesschaert said. 'If a majority of people say they don't care (if the fair complex is redeveloped), then we've got to let it go. But I don't think that's the case.'