BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Fairgrounds operations manager Richard Klimas has long had plans to improve the aging facility. Last week, he pitched the improvements to both the County Commission and the Brooksville City Council.
In each case, the public boards raised questions.
To the County Commission, Klimas asked for a resolution supporting his efforts to secure a $450,000 state grant to renovate the auditorium, build new livestock facilities and make other upgrades.
To the City Council, he explained his plan to build a Jeep obstacle course on the fairgrounds property, complete with a suspension bridge, a vehicle teeter-totter and trails through the woods. The Fair Association would charge for the use of the course.
The Fair Association’s grant request was directed to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Klimas’ plans include building a new livestock barn with an arena for the youth and livestock show, and replacing the existing barn with a new building for cattle, pigs, rabbits, chickens and turkeys. New ticket booths, new parking lot lighting, new air conditioning units, roof repairs, a dressing room, rest rooms and an updated kitchen also were in the project proposal.
Hernando County commissioners deeded the fairgrounds to the Fair Association in 2008. It sits on 40 acres on Broad Street on the south end of Brooksville. Established in 1954, the Association hosts the annual county fair, private parties and public events, including the Hurricane Expo, a circus, holiday events and trade shows.
The Association arena regularly hosts tractor pulls, horse shows and demolition derbies.
"The primary objective of the Hernando County Fair Association is to promote the local agriculture and provide a place where local youth of the county can proudly bring their animals, plants, homemade canned goods, baked goods, cooking, sewing projects, crafts, pictures, Legos, quilts, paintings and anything they can dream up all to be shown and judged for premiums,'' according to the Association’s grant application.
"We also provide the infrastructure to house and promote the successful show and sale of the youth and livestock projects.''
Commissioners unanimously approved Klimas’ requested resolution of support last week. It stated that commissioners "hereby deem the proposed project serves a public purpose and acknowledge it will incur no costs relative to the completion of the Hernando County Fair Association Fairgrounds Improvement Project.''
The fair for years received allocations from the county, including $30,000 last year to build a new porch on the auditorium. Each year, the allocation was supported by former commissioner Nick Nicholson, who was on the Fair Association board and whose former wife, Sandra Nicholson, was Fair Association president.
Nicholson was removed from office last year after his arrest on prostitution-related charges.
The commission gave no general fund money to the fair this year during its contentious budget negotiations. Commissioner Steve Champion wanted to make sure the county was committing no funds by signing off on Klimas’ resolution.
Commission Chairman Jeff Holcomb chided the Fair Association for allowing the fairgrounds to fall into disrepair, and Champion agreed. Photos in Klimas’ grant application showed run-down facilities and a lack of routine maintenance, which the Fair Association should have addressed, Holcomb said.
If state funding is awarded, he said, "it needs to be used properly, and it needs to be documented.''
Since the state provides the grant, it is the state’s responsibility for oversight, officials noted.
Five years ago, board members and volunteers raised questions about the Fair Association’s finances. Scathing financial reviews found deficit spending, sloppy and missing records and a failure to file financial reports on time. The Association had allowed its state corporate status to lapse, the report found, and was not monitoring conflicts of interest by board members.
An investigation by the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office found no criminal wrongdoing, but echoed concerns about slipshod accounting.
Klimas’ conversation last week with the Brooksville City Council focused on his plans for a Jeep course. The fairgrounds straddles both city and county land, as would the course.
Council member Joe Bernardini asked Klimas if he planned to build the trail as a Fair Association moneymaker or as his own project.
Klimas has several fair-related business interests under the auspices of his Brooksville Pulling Association, which holds tractor and truck pulls, along with demolition derbies. Klimas also has collected a salary from the Fair Association and has been a vendor to the organization.
He told the city council that the Jeep course would be a Fair Association function, but he planned to use his personal business contacts to provide financial sponsorships for the Association.
Klimas could not clarify which portions of the Jeep track would be in the city and which would be in the county. Council member Robert Battista said that for any portions in the city, Klimas would have to provide a formal agreement that includes legal protections for the city.
Battista also pointed out that a historic letter from the county memorializing what the Fair Association could do with the property would not allow the Jeep course. Hernando County planner Steve Gouldman said that city and county land-use designations don’t allow the obstacle course, either.
Klimas would have to have both the city and the county land rezoned for his project to work, Gouldman said.
"You have your work cut out for you,'' Brooksville Mayor William Kemerer told Klimas.