Avolunteer group building fishing access for disabled anglers at Expo Ponds has been ordered to halt work while Jackson County fairgrounds officials explore new options to lease that property for development.

Avolunteer group building fishing access for disabled anglers at Expo Ponds has been ordered to halt work while Jackson County fairgrounds officials explore new options to lease that property for development.

Fair Board members say potentially leasing the land off Peninger Road to one or more businesses could create one large step toward turning the fairgrounds, known as The Expo, into a self-sustaining operation weaned from county taxpayers' support.

"We're looking at anything and everything to try to keep the doors open," board President Chris Smith said. "That property is our asset. We have an asset that does not perform."

The board's cease-and-desist letter authorized last week blindsided the Disabilities Recreation Project, which has invested more than $470,000 in cash and in-kind donations toward a $3.2 million plan to provide wheelchair access to the ponds.

The group has laid water and sewer lines en route to its ultimate vision for wheelchair-access fishing piers, walkways, parking lots and bathrooms.

"It's more than a surprise," said Richard Anderson, the group's leader. "We've had the county's support on all this. Then all of a sudden, they put a stop to it."

"There's some power play going on right now and we're caught in the middle of it," Anderson said.

If forced to walk away from the project, the group doesn't know what it will say to the foundations and other donors who so far have ponied up $94,000 to help disabled anglers — not prep a site for business development, Anderson said.

The situation also threatens about $78,000 in grant requests meant to further the six-year-old project, Anderson said.

Expo Director Dave Koellermeier said the disabilities project could easily be moved to the pond at the nearby Lithia Motors Amphitheater, which already has an Americans with Disabilities Act-approved bathroom.

Smith said he hopes to work out some agreement in which the goals of the disabilities project and potential development can both be met.

"Is anybody against someone in a wheelchair going out and fishing at The Expo? Absolutely not," Smith said.

"There is a way to mitigate this," he said.

Anderson plans to meet with Expo and county officials Oct. 15 to see whether any of the access project can be salvaged amid the Fair Board's potential development plans.

"We're in a tough spot," Anderson said. "So is the county. We're trying to work it out."

Developers off and on have had their eyes on the Expo Ponds area at the fairgrounds' north end, which is visible from Interstate 5. It's part of about 180 undeveloped acres of The Expo's 240 acre-holdings owned by the county and managed by the Fair Board.

Fair Board member Leigh Johnson said past overtures never seemed to fit.

"It has to be something very compatible to the fairgrounds — youth, agricultural activities and animals," Johnson said.

The cash-strapped Fair Board has been operating in the red since 2010 and has about a $200,000 loan from the county's general fund to patch financial holes in its roughly $2 million budget, Koellermeier said.

Smith said the Fair Board is expected to be self-sufficient within three to five years, so its members are aggressively seeking new revenue streams.

"Budget deficits have a lot to do with everything," Smith said. "We have to be prudent."

The Fair Board has been approached by more than one entity interested in that property recently, said Smith, who declined to identify those interested.

If the area is developed, it would be done so similarly to the Rogue Valley Family Fun Center, Johnson said. The center is built on county land managed by the Fair Board but is owned by a private company paying a lease, he said.

Koellermeier said he has no idea how many different companies could end up developing that ponds property.

"I'd love to have a good anchor and take it from there," he said.

While recently looking into the disabilities project work, the Fair Board discovered that the group didn't have a contract with Jackson County commissioners that's required because its work at The Expo amounts to a capital-improvement project, Koellermeier said.

The group has worked through a letter of agreement with former Expo leaders but nothing with the commissioners, making the cease-and-desist notice necessary, Koellermeier said.

Anderson said his project has received support from county commissioners who have attended past project fundraisers.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.