Did the county get the best deal when it sold the Montgomery County Fairgrounds?

By Tim Walker

Sitting alongside the Main Street corridor, just south of downtown in the shadow of Miami Valley Hospital and a stone’s throw away from the University of Dayton, the expansive site of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds is impossible to miss. Encompassing a total of 37 acres, the Dayton landmark has long been a home not just to the familiar grandstands, the racetrack and the Roundhouse—constructed as it was in 1874—but also to decades of memories, cherished by the proud Ohio residents who attended so many of the county fairs conducted there over the years. The sounds from decades of motorcycle races, demolition derbies, auctions and funhouses still seem to echo over the grounds.

“We handed over a valuable public asset to two private institutions that will not pay property taxes,” says local political activist and small-business owner David Esrati. He has been highly critical of the fairgrounds deal. “We handed it over without any kind of documented plan on how they were going to develop the property. And gave them huge piles of tax dollars on top of that, with no requirement to actually relocate the fairgrounds like they were pushing the other developers to do.”

The two organizations, which bought the property, have partnered in community redevelopment before. The Genesis Project is a partnership between the city of Dayton, the University of Dayton, Miami Valley Hospital, CityWide Development Corp., County Corp. and the Fairgrounds neighborhood. The project worked to revitalize the Brown Street area and the other neighborhoods not far from the fairgrounds site.

In the past, not everyone has seen that site as a landmark to be protected. Calls for the county to sell and redevelop the fairgrounds are nothing new and have been bandied about for decades by local politicians, businessmen and residents alike. In 1961, Montgomery County Commissioner Harry J. Kiefaber called the fair a “honky tonk” and demanded that the county sell the fairgrounds property and move the fair to a rural site. At the time his demands were ignored. More recently, however, officials with the city of Dayton, Montgomery County and the Montgomery County Agricultural Society, administrators of the site, decided to do exactly that—sell the 37-acre site to the highest bidder and subsequently move the annual county fair to a different, more rural location.

The county issued a request for proposals last year to transform the fairgrounds into a mixed-use urban development that would offer a minimum of 600 market-rate housing units as well as space for a mix of retail, dining and office spaces. The minimum bid for the rights to acquire and develop the fairgrounds was $15 million.

In September two developers, Dayton-based Miller-Valentine Group and Terre Haute, Ind.-based Thompson Thrift, submitted their proposals for mixed residential and commercial development of the site. For several months the administrators of the fairgrounds reviewed the proposals from the two developers. Then, on Nov. 20, 2016, they issued a press release rejecting both of them outright.

Less than a month later, at a press conference held at the fairgrounds in December by officials from the city of Dayton, Montgomery County and the Montgomery County Agricultural Society, it was announced that Premier Health and the University of Dayton would buy the site for $15 million and that a final purchase agreement would be completed by mid-January.

Premier Health is a medical network of five hospitals and two major health centers in the Dayton area, one of which is Miami Valley Hospital, located on Main Street directlyacross from the fairgrounds. “We are excited to see the University of Dayton and Premier Health collaborate on the redevelopment of the fairgrounds,” Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said at the time. “Both organizations have been strong partners of the city and we look forward to supporting them in this new endeavor.”

“The County’s intent all along,” echoed Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, “was to redevelop the current fairgrounds property to continue the economic momentum in the city of Dayton’s southern corridor and build a better location to highlight Montgomery County’s agricultural economy. It wasn’t easy. But we feel it’s the best possible outcome for our community as a whole.”

And that, so they say, was that.

However, while the sale of the fairgrounds site was apparently a fait accompli the future of the county fair itself remained—and still remains, at this writing—in limbo. The early years of the fair saw it held at a variety of venues, first in October of 1839 in a wagon yard at the corner of East First and Race streets. Then from 1842 to 1844 the fair moved to 3 acres leased from Daniel Kiser, just north of Dayton on the site of today’s Kiser Elementary School. In 1853 it again moved, this time to its current location.

In 1874 the Southern Ohio Fair Association built the large exhibition hall—the Roundhouse—as well as other buildings. The Ohio State Fair was even conducted in Dayton on the fairgrounds several times in the mid-19th century.

Since proposals to sell the fairgrounds were initially solicited a suitable location to which the fair could be permanently relocated has been sought. Potential sites in Brookville, Huber Heights and Vandalia have all been proposed—and for various reasons rejected.

With the sale of the fairgrounds now complete, the 2017 Montgomery County Fair—which will be conducted July 10-15, two months earlier than usual—is apparently the last one that will be conducted in the traditional location. A potential location for the 2018 fair remains unknown.

But what about the sale itself? Was the final deal reached for the fairgrounds really the best one for the citizens of Montgomery County and the city of Dayton?

“The people of Montgomery County, and especially the public schools in this city, have gotten reamed in this deal,” says Esrati. “Basically, UD is creating tax-free office space for itself, which will create income tax for the city of Dayton but give nothing back to the schools.”

At this point, no plans for the development of the fairgrounds site have been made public. With a number of questions still awaiting answers it appears that the future of that land on Main Street—like the future of the Montgomery County Fair itself—remains in the dark.

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