Fair fight: Canyon cities, board at odds

Caldwell, Nampa want to be hosts; event heading another direction

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comJune 7, 2014 

Workers install artificial turf in May at Simplot Stadium in Caldwell in preparation for this fall's College of Idaho football season. The Coyotes brought back the sport after a long absence, and the stadium upgrades mean the site can't accommodate Canyon County Fair concerts.

JOE JASZEWSKI

Fairs are an Idaho tradition, with nearly every county holding one annually.

The Canyon County Fair, unlike most others, is not held on county-owned property.

The fair has been held for decades in Caldwell at the city-owned, 69-acre Caldwell Events Center, which includes the Caldwell Night Rodeo grounds, Simplot Stadium and O'Connor Field House.

College football is a nationwide tradition. After a 37-year absence, it is returning to the College of Idaho.

The college has invested more than $1 million to improve Simplot Stadium, where it will play all of its home games. Improvements include newly installed artificial turf, and the turf and the fair concerts held in the stadium are not compatible - heavy foot traffic and food, liquids and cigarettes can damage the costly surface - so the city told the county it cannot hold concerts there this year.

The city's annual Fourth of July fireworks show, also not friendly to artificial turf, will be moved this year from the stadium to Brothers Park.

Losing the stadium as a venue forced the fair to cancel two of four concerts planned for this year. The other two concerts have been moved to the rodeo grounds, said fair director Rosalie Cope.

She is unsure what will happen next year. One solution is to purchase a cover for the stadium field, but that is an investment neither the county nor the fair wants to make. They have other plans.

AGRIPLEX

In 2009, Canyon County paid $1.5 million for 80 acres for a new fairgrounds on the eastern edge of the county, off U.S. 20/26.

This spring, the Canyon County Fair Board announced detailed plans for eventual construction of a $40 million, year-round agricultural education and exhibition center, which also would serve as a new home for an expanded Canyon County Fair.

Dubbed the Agriplex, the new facility would mark the first time in the fair's 127-year history that all facilities and land are under county ownership and administration.

"The fact that Canyon County doesn't have a fair facility is a disservice to our community," Cope said.

Plans call for the center to draw on Canyon County's rich agricultural history and promote the industry, which is a key part of the county's economy. More than 100 different types of vegetables, row crops, seed crops and fruits are grown in the county, which also has a thriving livestock industry.

"The diversity of crops grown here is really rare. We would like to do a year-round education facility where we work closely with ag in the classroom," Cope said.

The Agriplex's education component would be comparable to the SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy) Center in Boardman, Ore., and The Barns global learning initiative at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, which offer teachers, students and families a hands-on look at the agricultural industry.

The new fairgrounds and education facilities are still several years and millions of dollars away, though.

"We have been in the 'quiet phase' for about a year," Cope said. The fair board and staff formed a foundation board, conducted studies and laid the groundwork to embark on a major capital campaign, which should get underway in the next few months and take about 18 months to complete.

The Idaho Agricultural Foundation and the Canyon County Fair Board are spearheading the fundraising effort, which is targeting corporations, the private sector and the community. To date no money has been secured.

The first phase, $12 million, includes infrastructure and an exhibition building for the fair. Until this phase is built, the fair would like to stay in Caldwell, Cope said. Two subsequent phases call for indoor and outdoor livestock and event spaces.

Cope said the plan is to construct the Agriplex and operate it without using taxpayer dollars by soliciting private donations to build it and making it self-sufficient through year-round use - much like Ada County's Expo Idaho complex.

ANYWHERE BUT THERE

Opponents of relocating the fair have a litany of reasons: The site is too far away, there are no nearby hotels or restaurants, and a government-subsidized event facility would be in competition with the Ford Idaho Center and the Caldwell Events Center.

Caldwell wants to keep the fair where it is; Nampa is offering the Idaho Center as an option. But the Canyon County Fair Board wants its fair on county-owned, county-managed grounds.

The turf war escalated last month just before the primary election, when the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce took out an ad stating it "stands united in opposition" to the fair board's "ill-considered campaign" to move the fair to the eastern edge of the county. The chamber asked the Canyon County commissioners "to rein in this potentially disastrous affair before too much damage is done through further pursuit of this $40 million proposal."

Angered by the ad, Canyon County Commissioner Craig Hanson went to Caldwell City Hall, where he confronted Mayor Garret Nancolas' assistant, Susan Miller, and Theresa Hardin, the Chamber of Commerce's executive director. Nancolas said staff told him Hanson was angry and threatening.

Miller and Hardin filed complaints about Hanson's behavior with the Caldwell Police Department, which forwarded a report to Caldwell City Attorney Mark Hilty. On June 4, Hilty said no charges would be filed.

Nancolas, bothered by Hanson's actions, sent him a letter May 27 demanding he apologize to his assistant and other staff who witnessed the confrontation.

"(I)f you do not intend to extend the requested apology, please refrain from returning to City Hall," Nancolas wrote.

Hanson replied May 29 with a two-sentence letter stating, "I would like to apologize if any member of your staff were unintentionally offended."

TAKING SIDES

The three county commissioners chastised the chamber for its ad, saying that it raised questions that have already been answered and that the county, as a dues-paying member of the group, was not consulted or notified about the ad.

The commissioners also support the fair board, saying it is "best qualified to give us recommendations about what it takes to run a successful county fair. They are people who have spent their entire lives in and around fairs."

Cope said she and the fair board are trying to stay out of the political fray and focus on building the new facility, which needs to do more than accommodate the annual fair.

A misconception exists that the fair "is just a four-day event," Cope said. This year the fairgrounds will host about 120 event days. "And that's just in one building," Cope said. "We are busy nearly every weekend."

Coordinating these events with Caldwell's complex or Nampa's Idaho Center can be onerous because each facility also schedules its own events. For example, the Ford Idaho Center hosts the Snake River Stampede each year in mid-July - just before the fair - so the events' take-down and setup could overlap.

Nampa Mayor Bob Henry and the Canyon County commissioners agreed Thursday to review projected costs this summer and consider potential issues of holding the fair and its other events at the Ford Idaho Center. But in the past, it hasn't been feasible, Cope said.

"To house the fair (at the Ford Idaho Center) doesn't take care of the bigger issue, which is our year-round events," Cope said.

Events held throughout the year at the fairgrounds typically include small local groups. The Idaho Center's facilities - and fees - are geared toward large state or national groups, and Cope worries that other groups would be priced out.

Also, the Idaho Center has a great setup for horses, Cope said, but it is not geared toward livestock.

"Nampa wants it to be economically feasible for both," said city spokeswoman Vickie Holbrook. "The city isn't saying, 'Have it at the Idaho Center.' The city is saying, 'Consider us before you build a new facility.' "

Nancolas contends that Caldwell is the ideal place for the fair.

"This is the heart of Canyon County," he said. The city is working on a master plan to show how the 69-acre facility can be maximized to meet the needs of the fair and other events, Nancolas said.

"We are truly doing everything we can to keep them here," he said.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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