Realtors propose moving Garfield County fairgrounds

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” A team of real estate agents is hoping Garfield County is ready to move its county fair operations out of the existing fairgrounds in Rifle, and sell off the site where the fairgrounds have been held for nearly a century.

Coincidentally, the real estate firm behind the proposal, Fleisher Co., also happens to represent the man who owns the only potential new fairgrounds site mentioned at Monday’s Garfield County commissioners meeting in Glenwood Springs ” a 53-acre parcel along the Rifle bypass road to the west of town.

County Attorney Don DeFord asked whether there may be a conflict of interest in the arrangement, and Fleisher’s executive vice president, Matt Flink, responded, “I don’t see any conflict.”

He said the proposed receiving site, known as the Gentry ranch and currently on the market for $3.5 million, “is simply one parcel out of half a dozen or so” that the Fleisher Co. would be looking at as it pursues the project.

One significant roadblock arose at Monday’s meeting, however. Commissioner John Martin appeared adamantly opposed to the idea, calling the existing fairgrounds “a gem … that helps Rifle” and questioning the assumptions detailed in support of the proposal.

Fleisher Co. has been working on the proposal for two years or so, said Frank McSwain Jr., who is listed as the project manager for the proposal.

“The residents of Garfield County deserve something better than what we have today,” declared McSwain, maintaining that the 17-acre existing fairgrounds site is inadequate to the needs of the county.

For example, he said, the existing fairgrounds facilities can only accommodate three simultaneous convention-style gatherings in its buildings, whereas the Jefferson County fairgrounds have meeting facilities for up to 15 different groups at the same time.

McSwain painted a picture of vibrant economic development emanating from the new fairgrounds and its expanded facilities, creating new jobs and sending tourists into area lodging, stores and restaurants.

Mentioning “naming rights” that could be sold to businesses or wealthy families as a source of revenue, McSwain also spoke of a “New Energy Expo Center,” a 30,000-square-foot hall.

McSwain told the board, “We feel the right facilities can attract different events and new businesses that would otherwise not come to Garfield County.”

But when pressed by Commissioner Tresi Houpt about how, exactly, new fairgrounds facilities would draw crowds of new visitors with pockets full of cash for local businesses, “More due diligence needs to be done to answer questions like that.”

According to a packet of information presented to the commissioners, four different options call for construction of facilities costing anywhere between $16.7 million and $31.5 million, which would be offset by the sale of the existing fairgrounds for around $9 million.

The proposal estimates annual operating revenues at between $526,000 and $1 million, depending on the range of facilities included in the project. The Fleisher team projected that, by using bonds to finance the construction and paying them off over 25 years, the county could actually save money off the current annual subsidy of more than $694,000.

As part of Monday’s presentation, Flink and McSwain, asked the county for $70,000 to continue a program of “due diligence” work that they said already has cost the company up to $75,000 of its own money, a request that won tentative backing from commissioners Houpt and Mike Samson. Martin voted against the idea.

“Right now, we know it’s not a money maker, but it’s heritage,” Martin intoned. “I can’t be going to the bottom line and saying, it’s all about money.”

When Houpt and Samson both agreed that more information is needed before making any decisions, Martin also pointed out that the county has a procurement policy that requires big-ticket financial expenditures be put out to bid.

County contract administrator Matthew Anderson explained that some items do not necessarily need to go out to bid. The commissioners directed the staff to look into the matter and come back to the board with a recommendation as to whether it can be simply awarded to Fleisher or must be offered for bid.