Ag Society considers 50,000-square foot expo center

(Posted Aug. 9, 2018)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

The Madison County Agricultural Society has its sights set on another new building–and a big one, at that.

The idea, said Darrell Champer, Society president, is to build a 50,000 square-foot expo center at the fairgrounds in London to host large-scale expositions, concerts, graduations, sports competitions and the like.

“This would be more about the community. It’s not really needed for the fair,” Champer said.

Besides accommodating events put on by groups from outside the county, an expo center could serve local companies and organizations, as well, he said. For example, Tolles Career and Technical Center could hold its graduation ceremony at the center rather than renting space in Columbus, and Stanley Electric could do the same for its corporate briefings, he said.

“It’s something they could use right at their back door,” Champer said.

Over the last few years, the Agricultural Society has constructed several new facilities at the fairgrounds, including the Eby Youth Arena, Coughlin Community Center, Beck’s Swine Barn, and Coughlin Horse Arena. The facilities not only benefit the county fair one week of the year, they also generate revenue year-round as groups rent the spaces for everything from hog shows and equine competitions to farm equipment showcases.

None of the facilities are big enough, however, to accommodate some of the requests the Ag Society receives.

“Because of the size of the buildings, we are limited on what customers we can serve,” Champer said. “A four-seasons, 50,000 square-foot building would be big enough to do anything we want to do.”

For reference, the Eby Youth Arena measures 9,000 square feet.

Champer noted that other agricultural societies around the state, including those in Holmes, Franklin, Miami and Pickaway counties, are upgrading their buildings and grounds, in turn creating more competition for rental customers.

Champer presented the expo center idea to the Madison County commissioners last month. In the past, the commissioners have matched every dollar raised privately for new buildings at the fairgrounds with two dollars of county funds. This past year, they added a $50,000 line item for the fairgrounds in the county’s annual budget.

Commissioner Mark Forrest said the two-for-one offer is no longer on the table. The county’s financial focus now is on infrastructure upgrades around the county and repairs to the county courthouse, he said.

Forrest also expressed concern about building such a large facility without local hotels, motels and large restaurants to support the people it would bring.

Champer said he thinks an expo center would bring new hotels and restaurants to the area.

“An expo center would generate a lot of traffic and a lot of income for the county,” he said.

As for funding, Champer estimates the expo center would cost $2 million to build. The Ag Society has already talked to state government officials about getting the project on next year’s Senate appropriations bill. The organization also plans to seek private donations.

Should the building become a reality, Champer said it likely would operate as its own entity, separate from the fairgrounds, with two or three paid staff members.

“We have to get to the point of being a business with employees. You can’t depend on 15 people’s free labor to run the place forever,” he said, referring to the volunteers who make up the Ag Society board and operate the fairgrounds.

The Ag Society also is looking at what to do about the aging grandstands.

“There’s a sense of urgency there because they are rapidly deteriorating,” Champer said. “Something needs to be done–either fix it or replace it.”

He said no firm plan is in place regarding the grandstands.

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