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Fair Board, county mend ways

The Jackson County Fair Board and county officials are pledging continued cooperation as they mend a historically rocky relationship.

While the financial health of The Expo and annual county fair has improved, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan urged Fair Board members to be more aggressive in event negotiations and to tap into county expertise to avoid potential legal trouble.

Fair board members, county staff and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners held a joint meeting Tuesday where they talked about past troubles and the breakdown of trust between the county and former fair officials. But they also acknowledged progress has been made and looked toward a more positive future.

This year's fair earned $256,316 in profit, and fair officials expect more than $20,000 in additional sponsorship payments to come in to add to that total, according to figures provided by The Expo staff.

Profits for the 2015 fair were $215,229, according to the figures.

The Fair Board has built up an ending fund balance of almost $400,000. The county is continuing to provide $185,000 worth of facility maintenance help each year.

Fair Board member Ken Trautman, president and CEO of People's Bank of Commerce, said the board wants to continue building up its reserves. He urged county officials not to take away the maintenance support, saying such a move would eat into the reserves.

Trautman said the economy is relatively good right now, but the Fair Board wants to be prepared for economic downturns.

Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said it's too early for the county to pull back on that maintenance help as Expo Director Helen Funk — in the position since 2015 — and new board members work to improve finances.

"We have to keep that relationship working and keep that support," Breidenthal said.

New fair officials have been credited with diversifying events at The Expo beyond the summer fair, building it into a year-round destination — many times with back-to-back events. The fairgrounds has a long history of needing county financial support.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said The Expo is on a path to becoming more resilient, and trust and cooperation between the Fair Board and county have improved.

Board member and high-tech entrepreneur Jim Teece responded, "We trust you as our partner."

The relationship was not always so cordial.

Jordan said meetings broke down between county and fair officials after he told board members they shouldn't drink alcohol during public meetings. He also warned them many of their actions were violating county policies and ordinances.

"Meetings broke down over ridiculous things," he said.

The Expo and fair are a county department, but they are expected to act as an enterprise fund and generate revenue, much like the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.

Jordan said past fair officials offered a cell tower valued at $1.2 million for $200,000 to get quick cash. The county stepped in and bought the cell tower and now owns that asset.

Teece said half-jokingly, "Can we buy it back?"

Jordan said past fair officials worked to attract events, but they didn't pencil out for the fair. He pointed to the board's decision to spend $300,000 to upgrade public restrooms in order to attract horse shows — even though the fairgrounds lost money on them.

Jordan said it's been a difficult experience dealing with some past fair boards.

Funk and current fair representatives were successful in luring the massive Country Crossings Music Festival to The Expo for 2017, but Jordan said they didn't negotiate hard enough on the financial front.

Fair officials acknowledged they were trying to hook the festival, which will feature stars such as Keith Urban and potentially draw 20,000 people to The Expo.

As a county department, The Expo pays fees to support county government, Jordan noted, and it should tap into the expertise of county staff members — whether they work in human resources, the legal department, planning or other areas.

"There is a vast resource to help you, and all you have to do is ask," Jordan said.

Also as a county department, The Expo must run according to government regulations. Jordan said fair officials lack that expertise, and should get help from the county to avoid legal problems that could range from bidding projects incorrectly, to excavating without permits, to staging events without adequate safeguards to protect the public from injury.

In addition, Jordan said the county can help the Fair Board apply for state and federal grants that could help fund projects such as parking lot paving.

He said the Fair Board doesn't have a mechanism to get new board members trained and up to speed. He urged fair officials to attend the county's in-house training for managers.

Jordan said he understands that board members are volunteers serving the community.

"I really compliment you on the time and effort you put in," he said.

Breidenthal said the meeting between county and fair officials was productive and marked the most in-depth talk the two groups had ever had.

Dyer agreed, saying, "This is a huge step forward."

— Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.