The Madison County Fair Board approved a proposal Wednesday night to grow its operation while relocating the local harness racing group to a smaller barn, a decision members of the group strongly opposed.
After more than an hour of debate — a sometimes loud debate — the board voted to approve a proposal to relocate the stalls used by the Madison County Harness Horseman’s Association from Barn A, which has approximately 44 stalls to Barn B, which has approximately 18 stalls.
Fair Board member Duane Powell presented the proposal based on research on how other fairgrounds attract business, such as equine shows on weekends.
“In order to grow our equine program we need 200 stalls,” Powell said. He said moving the harness racing group to Barn B will free up the Fair Board to better market the facility to attract more business. He also said they wanted to grow the 4-H equine programs. “We’d really like to set a goal of 3-5 percent growth rate in the equine area over the next five years. This year we had 102 equine (stalls); we estimate with growth, 105 next year and 108 in 2019. At 108 we are out of 4-H stalls” he said.
“So you want to move my race horse guys to the little barn. Is that what you are saying?” asked board member Amy Nichols.
“Yes,” said Powell.
“What am I going to do with my extra horses?” she asked. Nichols said the horsemen’s group needed 29 stalls now and 31 after November. Fair board members, however, said the number presently in use is less than 12.
Powell said county commissioners are offering funds to rehabilitate the smaller to make it a better facility.
Throughout the meeting Fair Board President Darrell Champer discussed ways of the horsemen’s group and board working on a solution together. “The problem we have is that we have limited income, limited resources, limited expenses to make things happen. What we are talking about today is how we move forward; how we have some harness racing here. From what I see there needs to be growth in the harness racing industry to make it go forward. We can’t keep having harness racing at a negative number every year and go forward. A third of our fairgrounds is tied up in harness racing,” he said.
However, Harness Horseman’s Association President Rob Mason said the issue isn’t about the money the board gets from them in stall rentals.
“Duane, I don’t doubt your proposal will out-trump money-wise what we pay in stalls. This is also about our sport, which is growing. Based on my looking at the numbers, we are making a profit on the stalls. There is no way we are losing money.”
“I agree,” said Powell.
“Before everything else here, this fairgrounds was the harness horsemen in the early days. There is a tradition and a history there. It was all built around that,” Ward said.
Powell said in total, they have 182 stalls throughout the fairgrounds.
Board vice president Dr. Tony Xenikis said that he believed their priority has to be the kids. “In order for our program to grow, there has to be money coming in. Yes, the commissioners have been generous in the past, but I think that’s done,” he said. “Our number one priority here is 4-H and FFA. That has to be understood. If I am wrong, I apologize to you. But that is why we are here — not to support your hobby.”
This met with negative reaction from the approximately dozen Horseman’s Association members in attendance.
“This is our living. This is not a hobby,” responded Association member Shelly Myers. “If this is your life, I’m sorry, I apologize,” said Xenikis.
But he added that, “If these fairgrounds are not sustainable on their own, they are going to go away. If they go away, 4-H is going away. We are an agricultural county. That’s our goal here — agricultural education — 4-H and FFA. Nothing else.”
Champer said the board is not asking to get rid of harness racing. “We are asking that we share the resources that we have. I’m trying to find out how we can exist together with our current expenses. The only way I see that happening in our current future is to downsize the horse barn and number of stalls so that we can rent the others out and make money in the process. That’s the only thing I see,” he said.
“In order to sell the fairgrounds for these shows, we have to say that we have around 200 stalls. If we say we have 100 stalls, we will not get the people here to rent the fairgrounds,” he added.
As the board and Association members debated the county fairgrounds issues, County Commissioner David Hunter rose to speak.
“I’m not speaking as a county commissioner but as an Ag Society member. I know that we have in the past all worked together, but what I am seeing now … it is getting a little out of hand. What I am hearing is that you are both looking at solutions. What I suggest is that you give it one month, get a committee together and sit down and talk about this. Just give it a month and let these guys come back. Both sides should come up with a plan.”
In addressing the horsemen, Champers said, “I need help from you guys. Give this a shot. Because if we lose, you lose. If we are not self-sustained in two to three years, harness racing is dead anyhow. It’s not an option guys.”
The motion to approve the proposal was placed on the floor and approved by board members.
“I will work with you guys. I will meet with you guys to see how we can get the stalls that you need to go forward. I will work with you as hard as I can to find a solution,” Champer said after the vote. He said that before the next meeting they will look at how they can begin marketing the fairgrounds and develop a plan for this growth.
After the meeting, Mason said, “The motion was going to be passed before they ever started.”
He said the Madison County Fairgrounds is for the community, “and while I support the 4-H portion of it, not everybody that comes to the fair is in 4-H. This is a community facility. We’ve been an institution here for generations. The truth is that there is a dislike for our business by these people. I’ve gotten that impression for the past year of going to these meetings.”
“It’s upsetting. We are going to have to lose horses now. This is our business. This is our livelihood. We are losing income,” said Association member Jenny Ackley after the meeting.
“I know it is a change, and it will be a big challenge,” Champers said Thursday. “We will work this out.”
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