The was a sense of urgency as the Great Bend City Council Monday night met with representatives from the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and Barton County Fair Board to and hash out the fate of the cavernous Expo I and II buildings at the city-owned Expo Complex. Who owns them, what are their futures and what can be done to make them viable were key among the topics on the table.
With deadlines looming, all parties attending the council’s lengthy post-meeting work session agreed there were no easy answers. With the potential for hard feelings, all the entities indicated they would hold internal discussions to craft plans and return to talks after the first of the year.
“There have been a lot of questions going back and forth,” Chamber President Megan Barfield said. The chamber manages the two structures.
The two buildings were built decades ago (I in 1979 and II in 1983) to accommodate the 3i Show. Through industrial revenue bonds, the chamber built them for $375,000 on land owned by Great Bend.
The chamber still owns (maybe) and maintains the structures, but leases the ground under them from the city at no cost. However, the deeds are vague and there are no clear titles, chamber and city representatives said.
No property taxes have been paid on them in years. The chamber is obligated to pay property taxes, but the city is not.
City Administrator Kendal Francis said it was probably the intention for the city to own them, but there remains room for debate.
A financial drag
The concern of the chamber board members was whether or not the buildings remained a part of a reinvented chamber that is smaller, nimbler and more focused on growing its membership and helping its members than on time-consuming events that stretch the staff thin.
“We’re not the same chamber we were 40 years ago,” Barfield said. Now, her board questions if they fit into its new mission.
“They are very much a drain on our financials,” she said. Now they have to decide if they are worth the cost or if they should “kill the sacred cow.”
The chamber has 563 members, she said. The fiscal bleeding is “hurting our membership.”
Revenue from the 3i Show, which was replaced 11 years ago by the Great Bend Farm, Ranch and Hemp Expo, paid for the buildings and their upkeep. The chamber coordinated the ag show and charged for use of the facilities.
But that income (up to $50,000 annually in the show’s heyday) has gone away. In addition, up until 2019, the city contracted with the chamber for economic development services at about $150,000 annually. However, the city ended this agreement, action that led to the formation of Great Bend Economic Development Inc.
There is the possibility of bringing in more events to the buildings. But, “is that the Chamber’s role?” Barfield said.
Besides, they have a staff of three and a limited budget.
Still, “(the buildings) serve a great purpose for the county,” she said. “We don’t just want to walk away.”
Over the past four years, the chamber has lost $60,000 on the venues. Even without income from them, the chamber still pays for utilities and maintenance.
A looming deadline
“Do they need to be there and what purpose do they serve?” chamber Board Chairman Jerry Renk said. “Those buildings out there represent a real economic asset; there is a lot of opportunity. How do you utilize them?”
The buildings are in good shape but need some minor repairs and upkeep, he said. To replace them today would cost around $6 million.
The chamber faces a March, 2023, deadline when the winter camper storage season ends. At that point, it needs to decide to either keep using the structures or shutter them.
They have offered to turn them over the city for some compensation.
“I do believe they are an asset,” said Ward 2 Councilwoman Jolene Biggs. But, “they need to be ran like a business.”
This would include dropping all events that use the facilities rent-free. “I know this will create some hard feelings,” she said.
“They have to take care of themselves” in terms of revenue and upkeep, she said. The city can’t expect taxpayers to subsidize a losing venture.
“Are we going to have to pay money for something that’s costing us money?” said Ward 3 Councilman Cory Urban.
On Oct. 19, there was a joint work session with the Commerce Board and the council to discuss the issue. They met in the Expo I office with the result being the council asking the Chamber what it was wanting.
After that, Barfield said the Barton County Fair Board, which owns Expo III, has indicated an interest in a partnership with the chamber and city.
Troy Miller, representing the Fair Board, was present Monday night.
After moving from the former 4-H fairgrounds on U.S. 281 between Great Bend and Hoisington, the fair has been at the Expo Complex since 1992. This has been a great collaboration with the city, Miller said.
However, the success is due in large part to the existence of the two structures. “Without I and II, the fair would go south in a hurry,” he said.
They are already booking performers and hope to bring a carnival back to the fair, but they need assurance they will have access to the buildings as soon as possible.
Now, “everybody needs to put their heads together,” Miller said. “The Fair Board is willing to do its part, even more than its part.”
The Great Bend Expo Complex is a sprawling facility owned by the city about three miles west of town. The land was once part of the U.S. Army Air Corps B-29 base during World War II that was turned over to the city after the war.
Also on the grounds are a number of other structures and facilities owned/leased and operated by the city and other entities.
These include: The National Guard Armory (which pays $1 per year and may look to expand); the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association Dragstrip (rented from the city); the Expo III building (owned by the Barton County Fair Association and leased on ground owned by the city); the Great Bend Motocross Park (leased by the local GBMX committee on city property); and the rodeo arena (owned by the city).