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Ongoing feud over fairgrounds taking toll

Beverly thinks Al is out to get her. Al thinks Beverly is cheating him. And Mary is fed up with the whole thing. The three are characters in Hernando County's longest-running soap opera: The War of the Horses.

It began last year when the Hernando Fair Association revoked a longstanding agreement which allowed the Horseman's Association to use the fairgrounds for free.

The action ended a 58-year harmonious relationship between the two groups and set off a year of charges and countercharges that shows no signs of abating.

The most recent casualty is Mary Stout, who resigned as secretary of the Fair Association in January after deciding that the continuing battles were becoming too much to bear.

Statements made by the principals on both sides of the dispute show the depth of feelings among the participants.

"They absolutely will not look at the situation objectively," said Beverly Smith, president of the Horseman's Association. "I think it's personally directed against me."

And this from Fair Association Chairman Al Dawson:

"Ask them about the money that they charged the groups who sublet the grounds from them, which wasn't even allowed by their lease, by the way. What we want to charge them is a whole lot less than they were charging these other groups."

Two county commissioners, Henry Ledbetter and Richard Killingsworth, have tried unsuccessfully in the past year to mediate the dispute.

As the argument has dragged on, the membership of the Horseman's Association has dwindled from 50 to 15. The group will have to engage in numerous fund-raising activities to find a new home for the horse shows and jumping competitions they sponsor, Ms. Smith said.

And Dawson was willing to say the unthinkable this week when he speculated that the county's annual fair could eventually be jeopardized by the dispute with the Horseman's Association and other groups who use the grounds.

The argument has its roots in a two-year-old decision by the Fair Association to become more aggressive in charging rent and collecting percentages from groups who use the county-owned property.

One of the first groups to go was an archery club that met occasionally for target practice on the fairgrounds.

Soon after, a gas-powered model car club stopped holding its races on the property.

Then came the dispute with the Horseman's Association, which refused to start paying a $250 fee for each show or $7 per stall.

And finally, negotiations with the Cracker Days Festival went belly up, although the two sides are still trying to work out a deal for use of the fairgrounds auditorium.

Dawson said the Fair Association is now trying to find other groups that would like to use the fairgrounds for a reasonable fee.

"The grounds are for the use of anybody who wants to use them," Dawson said. "But the county's Parks and Recreation Department generally charges a reasonable fee for the usage of their grounds, and that's what we're doing."

Although the two individual commissioners have tried to mediate the arguments, the entire board has been reluctant to step into the middle of the Fair Association's business. While the county owns the grounds, they gave control of the property to the 17-member Fair Association many years ago.

The groups who have either stopped using the fairgrounds or threatened to stop say that the fees are unreasonable because the Fair Association does little or no maintenance of the property. Instead, that maintenance has been traditionally done by the groups themselves in exchange for free rent.

So the stalls that the Horseman's Association built, added to and maintained are going unused. The fairground's large hall is often vacant and finances at the Fair Association have dwindled.

But Dawson is undaunted.

"We're in the kind of financial shape that a non-profit organization should be in," Dawson said. "You're not supposed to have big surpluses that you carry from one year to the next, and we don't."

Still, because of the financial situation, Dawson does speak with a little bit of concern for the future of the fair.

"We hope that it won't have any effect on the fair," Dawson said. "But it seems like everybody has been out to get us in the past year and I'm not sure what will happen."