EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The Eagle County Fairgrounds is one of the county's biggest assets, and that can create problems.
County officials for some time have talked about getting more use out of both the rodeo arena and the Eagle River Center, the large event facility on the west end of the property. That building's potential is the subject of this week's question for the five people running for Eagle County commissioner:
County officials are looking at plans to help the Eagle County Fairgrounds pay its own way. But to do that, the county may need to pay an estimated $3 million to upgrade facilities at the Eagle River Center. Is this a worthwhile project?
Courtney Holm, Republican, District 2
It is important to find ways to stimulate our economy and improving our Eagle County Fairgrounds facility at the Eagle River Center to accommodate regional and national equine or other events is a potentially good method. However, it is important to look at the proposed expansion with a detailed cost/benefit analysis. The benefits need to outweigh the costs and the overall county budget generally needs consideration.
The $3 million dollar upgrade includes RV hookups, at least 100 covered horse stalls, enclosed warm-up facilities, and proper footing for the arena. There are several unknown factors to feasibility: actual operating costs including additional salaries and maintenance; whether an improved facility would lead to increased booking of the center as simply building the facility does not guarantee bookings; whether the size of the proposed improvements would actually fit on the land available.
Events in the county like bike races, sports tournaments, Oktoberfest, ski races, concerts, rodeo, and other events of interest increase tourism and sales tax revenue as well as provide customers to many of our local businesses. Our big picture always needs to weigh our overall needs and budget with the realistic projections of use to determine feasibility.
Jon Stavney: Democrat, District 2
People talk about government thinking more like a business - this is a perfect example.
Built in 2005 with good intentions, the Eagle River Center operates at an annual loss, with recent annual operating deficits ranging from $15,000 to $52,000. A well-appreciated amenity, the Eagle River Center is booked on a first-come-first-served basis, without preference to revenue-producing events. It costs staff $3,200 each time the floor is changed from dirt to carpet.
From an economic development perspective, this segment of the fairgrounds campus remains an under-performing regional asset with great promise. -
Each year, users recommend upgrades. This spring, commissioners asked facilities to meet with regional equestrian groups to better understand what specific upgrades would open-the-door for booking major equestrian events.
This summer, staff created a business plan for those improvements, projecting the cost of those upgrades ($3 to $5 million phased in over five years) against projected return revenue.
For local sales taxes, the pay-off is five years with a return on investment of 25 percent! Most of that revenue accrues to the towns, not the county. From a use-fee perspective, the investment would take more than 15 years to pay off (an 8 percent return on investment). That is still positive, but not a great investment.
Currently, the county has a professional equestrian design team drawing a site plan with all the recommended elements, to be sure that it fits on this site. We had a great public meeting with lots of input July 9, and the design team is having charrettes this month. That plan will be reviewed, priced, and this winter will be open for public input when the commissioners weigh this opportunity.
I am excited to have all the details before us to be able to weigh this opportunity with more community input.
Dale Nelson, unaffiliated, District 1
The upgrades do appear to be a worthwhile project. The primary purpose of the upgrades is to allow the Eagle River Center to generate revenue to help pay for itself.
The Eagle River Center was originally built to be a multi-purpose facility. The upgrades will allow the county to focus primarily on indoor equestrian events. An indoor facility on the I-70 corridor is a big draw in the equestrian world and there is a great deal of interest in what the county is considering. By making the upgrades, the county puts itself in the enviable position to bring events locally that would have gone to another venue.
Like most improvements, we will have to determine if the numbers make sense. The final challenge will be funding. If it is determined that the upgrades will generate enough revenue for the Eagle River Center pay for itself, then indeed this could be a worthwhile project.
Jill Ryan, Democrat, District 1
The Eagle River Center, constructed in 2005-06, was the vision of a county commissioner soon to leave office. As some historians tell it, the project was a bit rushed and without a thorough business plan. The facility is equestrian-focused with a dirt floor, but is also used for events like the home and garden show and fair and rodeo. When events are non-animal in nature, it takes a total of four days, and extensive manpower by county staff, to convert the floor.
The facility is 50 percent booked and recovers about 32 percent of annual costs. It may have "untapped potential," both to pay for itself and bring in significant tourism dollars. The county is conducting a feasibility study to determine the cost-benefit of upgrades to accommodate regional and national high-end horse shows during the summer, with other types of events (sans the dirt floor), in winter.
The county is already paying for annual maintenance and staff time associated with this facility. I would like to see a better rate of return on its investment, and if the facility could be an effective economic development tool, I could really get behind it. If the feasibility study is positive, I think upgrade costs should be shared among other public and private funding partners that stand to benefit financially.
Jeff Layman, Republican, District 1
It is certainly a worthwhile exercise to explore ways for the Eagle River Center to pay for itself. And I salute the county staffers who have been "thinking outside the box" to come up with ways to make better use of this facility.
Unfortunately, we are saddled with a facility of questionable value given its expense. Currently, it recovers only 32 percent of its annual operating expenses and requires significant capital repair and replacement dollars. Events held there generate little revenue for the economy. Will pumping another $3 million into the Eagle River Center, on top of the initial $4 million, make it more attractive for high end equine events? While the opportunity may be alluring, the risk is enormous.
A study by a top equine consultant has been commissioned and will go a long way toward answering this question. In the end, however, the decision on what to do rests with the next board of county commissioners.
While I need more information to inform my decision, I can say with certainty that my experience working with all kinds of people and organizations, the relationships and community experience built over 32 years and my master's degree in public administration make me uniquely qualified to evaluate this, and other thorny issues facing our region.