EAGLE, Colorado - The Eagle County commissioners spent almost three hours going over concepts for improvements at the county fairgrounds site last month and decided they needed even more discussion before going forward with a design.
The county hired Populous Inc. in October to draft a concept design for expanding the Eagle River Center at the fairgrounds. The contract is for $29,000, and the project is expected to wrap up in January.
Last month's meeting was scheduled as the conclusion of the planning effort's first phase, with three ideas presented. After considering the concepts, however, commissioners agreed that the best plan would mix and match aspects of all three.
"There's really not a slam dunk with any of these designs right now," Commissioner Jon Stavney said.
Assistant County Manager Rachel Oys scheduled further discussion for the next Eagle County Manager Update meeting.
"We'll look at this some more and get back with you," Stavney told Populous principal Todd Gralla, who presented the design concepts last week.
The concept design project is likely to save money in the long run. It will help the county get a more specific idea what kind of investment and timeline will be needed to make the fairgrounds profitable.
Even when a design is selected, it won't mean that work will get started right away. Construction will depend on funding.
In its current condition, the Eagle River Center at the fairgrounds only generates income to cover one-third of its operating costs. The commissioners and others would like to change that scenario and make the facility a regional amenity that could attract equine events from around the nation. That goal is anticipated to cost about $3 million.
Further complicating plans at the fairgrounds is a gravel pit and recreation fields that have to be moved some time in the next three to five years. After the current pit next to the fields expires, that property will be reclaimed by the county and the land currently under the ball fields will be mined.
The rodeo grandstands and arena to the east of Eagle River Center might be moved, as well. That's one of the main problems that came up with the three initial design proposals.
On the one hand, the rodeo arena is currently too far away to be of any real use for events at Eagle River Center. Relocating it closer could be a key move for attracting better business.
Duane Elkins, of Exel Associates Event Management - one of the biggest equine-event organizers in the country - said there are about six large events per year that need two arenas.
"If the rodeo arena is close enough (to Eagle River Center), I would consider that location for some of these events," he said. "Without it, though, I wouldn't even look at (Eagle River Center)."
On the other hand, the narrow corridor of land between the interstate and the Eagle River presents limited options for moving the rodeo arena close enough to Eagle River Center. If it is moved, it might get in the way of barn space that also is needed for big events.
"You need at least 200 stalls," Elkins said.
Spectator parking and access are critical components, as well.
Stavney said they should remember that the rodeo arena is unlikely to be moved in the next 10 years.
"By that time, we'll have more options because we'll have the land where the gravel pit is now," he said. "The main purpose of this exercise is to make sure we don't preclude ourselves from things we'll regret later."
Stavney and commissioners Sara Fisher and Peter Runyon agreed that as far as Eagle River Center itself was concerned, a variation of the first design concept was the best idea so far.
In that design, a warmup arena was proposed as an extension off the east end of the existing 245,000-square-foot building. A barn with more than 200 stalls would be attached to the south side of the main building.
Commissioners liked the idea of moving the warmup arena to the west end of Eagle River Center, where there also would be more space for expanding the barn later.
"If the barn were expanded to the west, that would allow the rodeo arena to be moved farther to the west (than presented in the third concept design) and still be close enough to be utilized for ERC events," Gralla said.
In the second and third concept designs, the proposed location for the rodeo grounds resulted in two smaller barns west of Eagle River Center that would have 85 stalls each.
"But then I don't even have 200 stalls to work with," Elkins said.
In the second concept design, the rodeo arena was placed south of Eagle River Center. Runyon said the view from the grand stands would be great but was concerned the seats would be too hot in July, which is pretty much the only month of the year when the stands see much use.
Another consideration commissioners stressed for Eagle River Center expansion is the ability to convert the building for other uses. Community events such as the Free Family Fun Fair already utilize it but a floor has to be put down and packed up. It costs thousands of dollars every time the county has to convert the dirt arena floor.
"With the warmup arena, you would be able to leave the floor down on the main arena during the offseason and people would have enough space to ride horses year-round," Gralla said.
There was no debate that Eagle has a strong natural appeal when it comes to attracting events. For one thing, its central location between Denver and Grand Junction would draw horse events from both sides.
"I would love to have a place to book events between Denver and Grand Junction," Elkins said. "Currently, Denver people never go to Grand Junction and Grand Junction people never go to Denver. They would probably be most of your business."
The mountain surroundings and riverside location are a big plus, too.
"It has beautiful surroundings, and people would want to spend time here," Fisher said.
While visiting animal owners spend most of their days near the arena, Elkins said they will go into town for meals and shopping.
"They will spend money here in Eagle," he said.