County leaders talk upgrades at Evergreen fairgrounds

MONROE — Snohomish County wants to better harness the popularity of equestrian events at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds.

That was a major theme Wednesday as leaders discussed revamping the county-owned facilities along U.S. 2 at Monroe. The county touts the fairgrounds as the most heavily used public horse facility in the state, though there’s room for improvement. For the near-term, that could mean patching leaky roofs on a few buildings, putting in better arena sand and eventually having enough space to host two horse shows at the same time.

“We have good assets, but they need to be maintained,” county parks director Tom Teigen told the County Council.

The starting point for Wednesday’s discussion was a $100,000 fairgrounds master-plan study completed last year by Keffer/Overton Associates of Des Moines, Iowa.

The grounds are best-known for the Evergreen State Fair, which runs each year in late August through early September. The 12-day event has generated all of the fairgrounds profit in recent years. Officials have long sought to make the nearly 200-acre facility a steadier year-round draw.

Common events during the other 353 days of the year include car races, 4-H classes and swap meets.

“On weekends, the facility is full,” fairgrounds manager Hal Gausman said. “It’s a good problem to have. People want to come out and use our space.”

To make the setting more attractive there’s talk of beautifying the tunnels at the main entrance. Same goes for the stretch of U.S. 2 leading into Monroe, something that would benefit the city and local businesses.

“Right now, it just looks like a highway corridor,” said Una Wirkebau, executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce. “There’s nothing special about it.”

It would be better to greet fair visitors, as well as tourists and others who pull into town, “that welcome, warm-and-fuzzy” feeling, Wirkebau said.

Other potential upgrades are a permanent restaurant and a sound wall buffering the fairgrounds from U.S. 2 traffic noise.

Some even have suggested that the county, the city of Monroe or some other entity buy the general aviation airport next to the fairgrounds. The owner of First Air Field has previously dangled a $6 million asking price. Should that happen, the 32-acre property might be converted to something other than an airport.

The proposed changes won’t happen all at once. In fact, some could take decades.

The county once estimated that a complete redo of fairgrounds facilities would cost $67 million over 40 years.

A 100,000-square-foot exposition center has been under discussion since the 1960s. It’s not going to get built anytime soon.

The most recent big addition was the 33,000-square-foot Gary D. Weikel Events Center completed in 2011.

Replacing three or four building roofs could occur during the next year or two and cost a half-million dollars, Teigen said.

Over the past few years, the fair has averaged nearly $4.9 million in annual revenues. Year-end figures for 2014 weren’t yet available. Non-fair activities have lost an average of $27,000 in recent years.

Overall, the fairgrounds typically generate $500,000 to $800,000 in yearly profit that can be reinvested in projects such as the building upgrades now under discussion.

A key part of fairgrounds operations is the Evergreen Speedway. Any major changes there must be coordinated with High Road Promotions, the Snohomish-based company that operates the track.

This year’s annual fair is scheduled from Aug. 27 through Sept. 7. The county also has planned a spring carnival for April 24 to 26. Activities are to include amusement park rides, a crafts fair and more.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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