Hernando County Fair at a crossroads

While attendance was down 8 percent this year, fairgoers still headed to the midway — especially on Ten-Buck Tuesday — and loved the demolition derby.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

While attendance was down 8 percent this year, fairgoers still headed to the midway — especially on Ten-Buck Tuesday — and loved the demolition derby.

BROOKSVILLE

The plan is grand. Imagine a 3,000-seat auditorium, a state-of-the-art livestock pavilion, a covered main arena and expanded paved parking facilities. That's what the Hernando County Fair Association leaders envision in the 10-year master plan they presented to the County Commission in October.

The ambitious proposal calls for the eventual replacement of nearly every structure inside the 40-acre fairgrounds along U.S. 41 south of Brooksville. In their place would be facilities that could host a variety of events, from rodeos and horse shows to tractor pulls and concerts.

But there are the obvious questions: How much will it all cost? And who will pay for it?

Hernando Fair President Sandra Nicholson said this week that she can't answer those questions right now, but she acknowledged the cost will likely be in the millions of dollars.

"If you want something first-rate it's going to cost money," said Nicholson, who is also a member of the Hernando County School Board. "In the end, it will be worth it. We'll look back and say it was worth what we paid."

Based on the fair association's profit and loss statements from the last few years, finding the funds could be a challenge. Revenue from the annual Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show (the association's largest single source of income) has steadily dropped in recent years.

In fact, nearly half of the fair association's net income of about $207,000 last year came from the sale of a 1.6-acre parcel to Hernando County for a road right-of-way.

The association even resorted to renting out space in the offseason to a company that parked dozens of vehicles at the fairgrounds so its workers could perform repairs on its equipment.

Records show that in 2006, the fair ran 10 days and netted a $153,831 profit. Two years later, when the fair was scaled back to seven days, profits from the fair had shrunk to $107,712.

Though earnings from this year's fair haven't been finalized, fairgrounds manager Joy Jackson said fair attendance was down about 8 percent from last year.

A makeover of the fair facilities is not a new idea, said former fair president Deb Pedone.

Pedone, who works as an advertising representative for the Hernando Times, said that when she took office in 2002 the facility was in a terrible state of neglect. Fences were torn down or missing, roofs leaked and several livestock stalls built during the 1950s were in danger of collapsing.

Along with a swarm of volunteers, Pedone and the fair board went to work patching things up. They also took a serious look the fair's future.

In 2004, the association applied for state grants to build what would be called the Hernando County Agriplex, a multi-purpose facility that included a civic building that would seat several thousand people. But just as it looked like the project might earn a green light, the Legislature killed it.

Nicholson points out that some improvements have already begun. A new, larger rodeo arena was completed in March. Along with other improvements to the facility, the bill for the arena came to nearly $160,000.

That was paid largely through proceeds from the sale of the property to the county.

That expenditure didn't sit well with past association president and current board member Joe Bernardini.

Bernardini, who is also the mayor of Brooksville, said such large-scale spending needs to be scrutinized more. Though he acknowledges the need for improvements, he favors a more incremental approach.

"It's not prudent to spend money you don't really have," he said. "We have to be good stewards of the association's money."

Nicholson insists the new arena was necessary to attract renters who will want to use the facility for tractor pulls and equestrian events.

"Part of our agreement with the county is that we make such improvements," she said. "Besides, we aren't in the business to build a big bank account. I'd rather see it put to good use."

Nicholson pointed out that the fair association is not in debt, and even has about $250,000 in reserves.

Falling revenue for the fair, she said, is a reflection of the economic problems facing all of Hernando County. "We're battling the economy," Nicholson said. "Compared to other fairs, we did better than most."

Nicholson, who is in her first year as fair president, said she is trying to improve the non-profit organization's financial health.

Last fall, the association rented part of the facility to amusement ride contractor North American Midway Entertainment, which wanted space during the winter months to do vehicle and ride maintenance.

In March, the city of Brooksville cited the association, saying that the long-term parking of RVs and trucks violated city codes. An attorney for the association countered that the group was exempt from the rules because the property was zoned agricultural, not residential.

The issue between the city and the fair association remains unresolved. But Nicholson hopes the association will be able to extend a long-term contract to North American Midway to use the fairgrounds as a permanent winter home.

"Having them here is important," she said. "The revenue we get helps us tremendously."

Despite the fair's tilting fortunes, Nicholson thinks that improvement plans need to go forward if the facility wants to attract more business and fully serve the community.

"It's doable and we need to do it," she said. "We're a rapidly growing community. We can't afford to act like it's a small town."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or at (352) 848-6722.

Hernando County Fair at a crossroads 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 1:25pm]

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