Kootenai County needs a big place to have big events – especially with the area’s erratic weather – and the Fair Board thinks the fairgrounds is just the ticket.
The board, which oversees the North Idaho Fair and Rodeo, along with the 80-acre grounds off Government Way, wants to add an events center that could seat between 5,000 and 8,000 people for year-round events. Similar to the Spokane Arena, an events center would attract concerts, monster truck rallies, basketball tournaments and trade shows. And the fairgrounds would remain home to the fair, which the board is quick to protect as a fundamental community gathering steeped in tradition.
That trend toward expansion is happening across the West as small county fairgrounds look at additional ways to use their space and bring in more money.
“It’s a matter of survival,” Fair Board Chairman Roger Saterfiel said. “If we don’t change and don’t provide what customers are asking for, we become a burden.”
The board has kicked around the idea of an events center for more than a decade. An architect’s model of the building from a 1993 study sits on a table in the back of the fair office, offering a reminder of what could be constructed outside the door in just a few years. The long, rectangular center has a steeplelike roof that covers 140,000 square feet of space that could be reconfigured depending on the event. There is no other venue like it in North Idaho.
The idea got another boost recently when Coeur d’Alene agreed to provide the county fairgrounds with sewer service. The fairgrounds is an island of county land surrounded by the city and has been unable to expand because no septic system space was available.
Now that the sewer situation is solved, the big question is how to pay for the events center, which could cost $19 million.
Saterfiel and planning consultant Jim Stravens aren’t comfortable quoting an actual price tag or where the money to build the events center would come from, but they hope to see the project completed as soon as possible.
They said more study is needed, and fairgrounds General Manager Chris Holloway is visiting other similar venues in the region to get ideas. This week she was in Great Falls. Last month, Holloway drove to the Yakima Sun Dome to see a similarly sized center. The dome has a maximum capacity of 7,700 people and is used for everything from high school proms to a recent Toby Keith concert. It had 288 event days last year, not counting activities in the other buildings and arena on the 100-acre grounds, said Melissa Miles, assistant to the general manager.
Built in 1990, the dome was financed through a combination of state, town and county funds, and local bond issues.
The board hasn’t officially presented the events center plan to county commissioners or talked about funding.
“It’s premature to throw out numbers,” Stravens said. “We first need to figure out what to build.”
The board recently created a foundation, a separate entity, that can raise money and accept donations. The board is now looking for volunteers to serve on the foundation.
But nobody thinks all the money will come from donations.
Kootenai County Finance Director David McDowell said there are several options, including a bond proposal or a vote to create a new taxing district specifically for fairgrounds projects. The county commission also could make the events center a priority and try to find cash within the existing budget.
Commission Chairman Gus Johnson favors an events center and thinks it would be good for the area. He just doesn’t believe residents will agree to higher property taxes, especially when North Idaho lawmakers are in Boise fighting for ways to reduce the property tax burden.
“I don’t see how we can finance it,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge undertaking. I’m not saying it’s needed or not needed. The community will decide that based on the finance plan. It could be a really wonderful thing.”
Besides paying for construction, the county would have ongoing maintenance and operation costs for the facility. Stravens said it’s likely the center would start paying for itself within three years.
The five-day county fair generates about $800,000. The fairgrounds has about 230 event days each year and gets money from rental fees. It also receives money from the county for major projects and improvements.
Saterfiel said he doubts the county can get any state dollars for the Kootenai County project, but the board is dedicated to looking at funding alternatives.
“It will be a little while yet,” he said. “We are still compiling ideas.”