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FAIRGROUNDS FAIL, PART ONE: Fifteen years and a dozen plans later, Boone County wants a taxpayer bailout

Developers have had a mysterious and enduring interest in the Boone County Fairgrounds
COLUMBIA, Mo 7/18/14 (Feature) -- If a single project epitomizes the word "Boondoggle," it's the Boone County Fairgrounds, renamed the Central Missouri Events Center in recognition of its 15-year history of controversy and confusion.

The Boone County Commission -- like the City of Columbia, never shy about asking for a tax increase -- will ask voters for a bailout on an August 5 ballot Fairgrounds boosters are selling as a "parks tax".  

But the tax has so little to do with parks, the County's own park board declined to endorse it

For reasons few people understand to this day, then-Presiding Commissioner Don "Donnie" Stamper led the charge to buy the 214-acre Fairgrounds in 1999.  County government paid a failing non-profit -- the Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Society -- $2.6 million for 134 acres.   Prominent developer Tom Atkins bought the remaining 80 acres.  

"We’re in the real estate business," he told the Columbia Daily Tribune.  "That is all I really have to say for now," he said.

Never shy about mixing business and government, developers like Atkins have had an enduring -- and mysterious -- interest in the Boone County Fairgrounds. 

With her husband Hank Waters -- as Trib publisher, the area's leading pro-developer voice -- former REDI and Columbia Chamber of Commerce chair Vicki Russell was president of the County Fair Board at the time.   A Blight/EEZ/TIF proponent, Russell was also an outspoken advocate of the County's fairgrounds purchase.     
Stamper, once a populist standard bearer of local Democrats, lost his 3-term County Commission seat to Republican Keith Schnarre, in a campaign battle that hinged on voter dislike for the Fairgrounds purchase. Part of the mystery is why such a savvy politician would throw away a promising career on such an obvious boondoggle.  Enter developers again.  Stamper left politics to become director of the Central Missouri Development Council, a lobby for the local development industry.   

The fairgrounds purchase sparked controversy shortly after Stamper announced plans to use profits from the lease of Boone Hospital -- a county property -- to finance it.   "Boone Hospital trustee Walter Johnson said he’s decided to oppose a county acquisition of the fairground," the Trib reported. 

"If this proposal goes through, I suggest the new land be called Blood County Park, and I ask every Boone Countian who has paid a hospital bill in the last decade to join me," Johnson told fellow trustees. "The money from hospital profits is bled from patients."

Other plans that went nowhere showed up regularly.  A St. Louis firm proposed making the Fairgrounds home to a minor league hockey team.    And after trying to avoid raiding the County's general fund, which pays for most major services, County Commissioners suggested using it to help finance the purchase. 

Opposition soon appeared, and from some unusual places.  County Auditor June Pitchford and County Treasurer Kay Murray said the fairgrounds purchase was not a priority.   "I hate to see a capital expenditure of this magnitude float above other capital needs that are more germane to the county’s primary function," Pitchford said at the time.

"I am holding my nose and going along with it," Murray said.

After Stamper failed to answer her questions, Pitchford's resistance intensified.  "Stamper testily defended his proposal," the Trib reported.   The Presiding Commissioner was not going to countenance any opposition. 

But the opposition only intensified. 

NEXT:  Citizens revolt



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