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Whither the Fairgrounds?

July 30th, 2005 by dk

Published on July 31 in The Register-Guard.

Is the current imbroglio about the 55 acres at 13th & Jefferson in Eugene about attracting a hospital, rejuvenating downtown, or setting Lane County’s fairgrounds on a path toward sustainable finances?

The answer is yes. Or at least it should be.

Conversations with multiple starting points are the most difficult conversations to have, because where you begin shapes everything that follows. The recent revelation that relocating EWEB may cost more than Triad is willing to spend has lent new urgency to the plight of the fairgrounds, but that conversation has been ongoing for years, if not decades.

None of the three problems have rallied enough pluck and determination to get off the public’s back burner, but taken together, they may. Consider that a single solution may address three problems at the same time.

Urgency requires we first look at the hospital situation. Triad and McKenzie-Willamette Hospital want a new location in Eugene that has easy access to the transportation grid. The City Council and some concerned citizens believe it best to find a site south and west of our rivers. If a true catastrophe happened that left us bridgeless, nobody wants hurt people in rowboats trying to reach help.

The EWEB riverfront location looked to meet those needs and Eugene’s city council pledged to help. But the price tag for moving EWEB looks to be too high. This sent Eugene leaders to dust off their “relocating a hospital” files from prior negotiations with Peace-Health in 2000. The fairgrounds (at least publicly) came up then as Plan E, after one side or another proposed (A) the west university neighborhood, (B) the Eugene Clinic area at 12th & Olive, (C) an industrial tract near the new firehouse at 2nd & Chambers, and (D) the Crescent Avenue location in north Eugene. Selling the fairgrounds’ would be decided by the Lane County Commissioners, who can be counted as one owner (good) or five owners (bad).

Meanwhile, the Lane County fairgrounds continues to lose money. The county fair and the events scheduled there fail to attract enough visitors to make it self-sustaining. It remains one of the few remaining urban fairgrounds in the northwest, but the dirt it’s sitting on is worth more all the time, and prudent managers claim it’s good to periodically consider selling. The value of the land may someday merit relocating to a less lucrative location, while putting the windfall from the sale into an endowment to wean the operation from public funds.

Lane County Fair statistics show that the bulk of its visitor come from its urban host city. Other counties that have moved their fairgrounds off the beaten track have seen marked decreases in attendance and participation.

Seen from another angle, Lane County Fairgrounds is near downtown, but not near enough. The facility’s proper name is Lane Events Center, to include its convention center, sports programs, and other amenities. But locals can be forgiven for continuing to call it the fairgrounds. Because it offers no proximity to a hotel or mass transit, the only conventioneers it typically attracts are those traveling by car (or, in the case of the Loggers Convention, truck.)

We can’t move the fairgrounds closer to downtown, but we can move downtown closer to the fairgrounds. Downtown Eugene is on a roll, at least on paper. Exciting projects are in the works for a grocery complex near the federal courthouse on its east end, and a sprawling mixed-use vision is being developed near the west end. The northernmost point beneath Skinners Butte is primed for a facelift of its own, as roads get reconfigured to show off the remodeled train station. But the south end of downtown just sort of peters out past the LTD station.

Once each of these story lines gets to its middle, they begin to merge. Nobody has enough money to do what they see must be done. The county can’t build a hotel to augment its struggling convention center, developers can’t make downtown whole without incentives, Triad can’t pay triple its payment for a downtown property, and EWEB can’t ask ratepayers to pay for its relocation.

Way back when, a group of citizens gathered and called themselves CHOICES (Coalition for Health Option in Eugene-Springfield), urging Peace-Health to find a central location for its expanded facilities. At one point, their preferred choice was the underdeveloped area surrounding the old Eugene Clinic between the LTD station and the fairgrounds. The group settled its dispute with PeaceHealth earlier this year, allowing construction at RiverBend to proceed. Part of the agreement requires PeaceHealth to divest the Eugene Clinic within two years.

If all the parties involved can be persuaded to hurry things up a bit, Triad could get a hospital location on the south end of downtown. City incentives for the hospital can be shifted from road access and railroad mitigation to helping site a hotel beside the new hospital and near the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds keeps its urban location and can use its county bed tax funds to put some beds near its convention center or help LTD fund Bonny Bettman’s vision of a trolley connecting the edges of downtown. And downtown has a well-defined southern terminus at the fairgrounds, via a hospital and hotel complex south of the LTD station.

Combine the ingredients of three back-burner problems for a single front-burner solution. Stir and simmer. Serves 300,000.

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Don Kahle (dk@comic-news.com) is a Eugene resident who prefers casseroles.

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