The Waseca County fairgrounds will see some improvements thanks to federal COVID-19 funding.
The Waseca County Board approved funding Tuesday for two projects at the fairgrounds. But during the discussion prior to the vote, commissioners grappled with how much money to give to the Waseca County Free Fair Board considering the county already appropriates money annually to the fair.
County Administrator Michael Johnson told the commissioners that they don’t have to cover all of the Fair Board’s repairs, but he pointed out that most people associate the fair with the county even though the county only owns the property and not the buildings at the fairgrounds.
The Fair Board received revenue from a few events last year, but didn’t receive revenue from a fair last year, Johnson said, adding that the fair also didn’t have its normal expenses last year either.
He noted that many of the repairs the Fair Board asked the County Board to fund should be ongoing maintenance at the fairgrounds. He suggested the county add a caveat to its annual appropriation that the money has to be spent on building maintenance.
“You’re trying to bite off 20 years worth of projects at one time,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Blair Nelson responded that the Fair Board has picked up “quite a bit” on the repairs it has completed in the last few years. Some of the repairs are to change items in a building to meet new requirements, such as a change in the health codes, he said.
The Waseca County Board approved Tuesday $44,000 for a roof replacement and $9,500 for improvements to the 4-H food stand. The County Board also directed the Fair Board to repair the gates at the fairgrounds, but didn’t include $5,000 to pay for the repair as requested by the Fair Board.
The money will come out of $200,000 the county saved as contingency funds from last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but Johnson said he’s expecting the county to receive more funds in the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress last month.
Fair Board members appeared before the Waseca County Board in March to request financial help with needed repairs and commissioners asked them to provide the County Board with a “wish list” of repairs.
The Fair Board appreciates the county’s annual appropriation, but the buildings at the fairgrounds are aging and repairs are constant, Fair Board member Robin Dulas told the County Board March 16.
“We’re not Steele County level, but I think we have one of the best fairs in Minnesota,” she said. “We want that to be a good representation of Waseca County and what we do to bring people to the county.”
In addition to the roof replacement and 4-H food stand improvements, the Fair Board also asked for $4,000 for grandstand electrical updates, $6,000 for miscellaneous electrical updates around the fairgrounds, an unknown amount for an updated fair work vehicle, $2,000 for lumber repairs to a building, $3,500 for an air conditioning unit for the meeting room/nursery room during the fair, $8,600 to change the lights to LED at a building, $2,600 for a garage door and opener at a building and $2,000 for bathroom upgrades, according to the list.
The top priority for the Fair Board is the roof replacement and the remaining items could be done sometime in the future, although the county doesn’t have to fund all of the projects, Commissioner Brad Krause said.
“This is where we want to stick the dollars because this is a year-round property that we want to keep nice,” he said.
Commissioner Doug Christopherson pointed out that the county has loaned money to the Fair Board for projects in the past, which the Fair Board then paid back. The County Board has to decide whether it wants to give the CARES Act funds to the Fair Board or spend it elsewhere on county expenses, he said.
“I want to help them. I want to have a fair there, I want to have a nice fair. But that’s a big ask,” he said.
Commissioner DeAnn Malterer suggested commissioners consider whether the county is providing enough money annually for the Fair Board to maintain the buildings to serve the community year round. The county needs to be concerned about liability with the condition of the fairgrounds’ buildings because it owns the property, she said.
Nelson pointed out that the Fair Board could request funding in the Legislature’s bonding bill for infrastructure projects. He said he’s not advocating to spend money on “fluff” projects, but the Steele County Free Fair received state money for a major infrastructure project last year and other local governments in the area have received millions of dollars from the state for infrastructure projects while Waseca County gets passed over.
“Since I’ve been on (the County Board), the only thing I’ve discovered is that you need to ask for people to be aware … I think we’ve been very quiet at the county for too many years,” he said.