Originally published in Oregon Business Magazine, March 2001
DESCHUTES COUNTY – The Central Oregon business community had high hopes for the Deschutes County Fairgrounds and Expo Center when it was first proposed in 1996. Civic and business leaders lobbied aggressively for passage of a 20-year bond measure to fund the $31 million facility, arguing it would be a profitable venture bringing in thousands of visitors each year.
So when word spread that the Fairground and Expo Center was awash in red ink, the business community was concerned. The Fairground Association, which managed the facility and bookings, was $462,000 in the hole with only $163,000 in long-term contracts and commitments.
Considering that the Fair Association had successfully managed the old fairground for years, the numbers shocked the incoming board of county commissioners.
“No one involved in the Fair Association had the experience to run an expo center,” says county commissioner Tom DeWolf, who took office in 1999. It was as if “they’d gone from operating the city of Sisters to operating Seattle. We were repeatedly asking for a business plan, but what we received was not acceptable by any normal standard,” says DeWolf.
The county dissolved its contract with the Fair Association, took over operation of the troubled venue and used tax dollars to bail out the fairgrounds.
The business community, which had lobbied so hard for the new fairgrounds four years earlier, also took action. It began a coordinated, ultimately successful effort to save the much-anticipated Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) meeting scheduled for August 2001 – expected to infuse about $3 million into the local economy. The meeting was in jeopardy because the Fairground and Expo Center did not have the money to fund an additional 80 acres of parking, as stipulated in its contract with the FMCA.
Mike Daly, owner of Mike Daly Construction, donated $65,000 worth of the labor to get the prep work started, and the 40 members of the Redmond Executive Association decided to back a $200,000 county loan to help fund the additional parking.
“We believed that in spite of the short-term problems, it is a huge asset for this community and region,” says Barry Jordan, founder of the Redmond Executives Association and branch manager at Bank of the Cascades. “We wanted to send a message to the county council that the business community was behind [the rescue effort] and to make the FMCA meeting a successful venture.”
Not only did the businesses back the rescue effort, but motor coach manufacturers from around the state also pitched in. Beaver Coaches Inc., Monaco and County Coach contributed a total of $25,000 to the effort.
“It was a community effort. In the long run it will be a good investment for the entire stat of Oregon to have big out-of-state meeting come into the area,” says Beaver Coaches’ Frank Ballantyne.
The county commissioners also secured a $1 million state loan/grant package from the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department in Salem to cover costs.
With new management in place at the Fairground and Expo Center and the FMCA meeting on track, there is a “can do” attitude among the county commissioners and the business community.
“We are hoping that the fairground is going to be able to operate without supplemental help within the next couple of years,” says Daly, who was recently elected to the county commission. “There isn’t a fairground in Oregon that breaks even. It is our determination that this is going to be the exception.”