An interesting political dynamic will be played out over the next several years, and could bring together some unlikely bedfellows.

 

The Utah State Fair Park – located on North Temple and 10th West – is 67 acres of prime real estate near downtown Salt Lake City.

What exactly to do with the park, which used to be called the State Fairgrounds, has been debated for as long as I’ve covered the Legislature, more than 35 years.

A recent legislative audit found poor management of fair park resources.

And the Legislature had to dump an extra $600,000 into the facility in recent years to keep it out of debt.

The greatest advocates of making the fair park a profitable enterprise, and develop the land in a responsible way, are the Democratic legislators who represent the area and rural Republican lawmakers who still want to see their farming and ranching constituents have a place to showcase their animals and way of life.

But with dwindling attendance at the fair, more red ink and buildings that have been condemned – and are now having their roofs replaced – the fairgrounds/park is in trouble.

One idea is to have a private entity – the owners of the MLS soccer team Real Salt Lake – come in and build a smaller, minor team stadium.

With lower ticket prices the arena would not be in direct competition with Sandy’s Real Salt Lake facility, supporters argue.

In any case, a new report given to the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee says because the park needs so many, and expensive improvements, some political decisions need to be made by the governor and Legislature.

Whether the fair is moved to another location or not – one idea is to have a “traveling fair” located in the different counties on a rotating basis -- $33 million in building improvements will be needed at the fairgrounds over the next 20 years, the report says.

This assumes the land is not sold, the current buildings either torn down or rehabbed by the new owners.

If the state decides to keep the current fairgrounds and operate a yearly fair there, then in addition to the $33 million it will take another $47 million to construct “new commercial facilities, rodeo grounds, an arena, retail venues, convention center and multi-sports arena,” the report says, to make the who park financially viable.

It would cost the state $160 million to build a new state fairgrounds in some other location, the report adds.

This all a lot of taxpayer money, needed at roughly the same time that lawmakers will relocate the state prison to new facilities – around $100 million in various phases – and build any number of new state buildings on public college campuses.

This while conservative lawmakers are now in the process of paying off record-high state bonds, issued for a number of projects – mainly rebuilding freeways and major roads.

First, the report concludes that the current fair park is a jewel – rarely would one find such a large space of land, located so close to an urban area, currently dedicated for a rural-concentrated fair.

The park is on the National Register of Historic Places – and that brings other considerations besides the value of the current buildings and land.

The state could sell part of the park to a private developer(s), lease parts to development, or undertake development itself.

As raw land, the 67 acres is worth $11.2 million, the report says.

The report makes some interesting recommendations, one of which is to keep the “White ball park” land area – now a dirt parking lot south of the fair park across North Temple – for future state buildings, complete a rodeo grounds on the northwest part of the fair park and build next to that, toward the east, a new multi-sport field and stands – which could be used by a minor league professional soccer team.

While there have been various master plans adopted for the fair park over the years, none have been fully built.

Accordingly, utilities onsite are inadequate for implementation of new recommendations.

It would cost around $425,000 to upgrade the utilities, water, sewer, natural gas and such, on the fair park grounds, and another $240,000 for utilities in the “White ball park” land across North Temple, the report says.

There’s an option to have a much scaled-down state fair on the property and develop the rest for housing, business and large commercial.

In that case, the land would be worth at least $17.1 million, the report says.

If the state fair is kicked off the land completely, and the land is sold off for private development, the land would be worth $18.1 million.

Meanwhile, watch over the next few months – and through the 2015 Legislature – for the Democratic lawmakers who represent the fair park area become friends with rural GOP lawmakers over the future of the fair park.

It’s clear tens of millions of dollars will have to be allocated to the land one way or the other.

And you may well see interesting political coalitions built to keep the state fair in Salt Lake City, while developing other areas of the fair park to make the park at least pay its own way.

 

Editor’s Note: The new study was prepared, in part, by Zions Bank Public Finance, and Zions Bank is a UtahPolicy sponsor.