STUART –Martin County Fair-goers may one day head out Citrus Boulevard instead of driving down Dixie Highway to get to the fairgrounds after the County Commission approved the preliminary lease terms for a 107-acre piece of property near the Indiantown Airport to use for a future fairgrounds.
Assistant County Administrator George Stokus described the terms and conditions of the proposed lease terms on the land, which has sat empty for the last several years after being deeded to the county by the South Florida Water Management District for recreational purposes in exchange for other property needed for a water project.
“The proposed lease is an initial term of 40 years, with two 10-year renewal options after that,” he said. “The option to lease would require the fairgrounds by Nov. 15 of 2020 to provide the following for review and approval: architectural designs and engineering construction plans for the property; a development schedule including detailed development milestones and construction completion dates; detailed cost estimates certified by a professional engineer; and a Phase 1 environmental site assessment for any necessary follow-up action.”
The lease would also require the Martin County Fair Association to provide a completion date within five years of the initial lease approval. Although the organization is planning $50 million in improvements on the property to offer year-round activities on the site, Martin County will have to foot the bill on more than $1.6 million in infrastructure improvements.
“When we were discussing the ability of the fair to go on to this property,” Mr. Stokus explained, “we asked the Martin County Utilities and Solid Waste to come up with some preliminary construction costs associated with an extension of the water main, as well as a sewer main extension. The water main is approximately $470,000 and the sewer forced main extension is approximately $485,000. The total cost of those items is $955,000 total for utilities, $420,000 for turn lanes and about $275,000 for engineering fees, which would bring your total up for the potential impact to $1,650,000.”
Commissioner Sarah Heard then peppered the assistant county administrator with questions about infrastructure funding and the county’s plans for the existing fairgrounds if the Commission decided to proceed with the proposal. When Mr. Stokus told her about potential grant opportunities but that the future of the current fairground property had yet to be debated, she felt staff was putting the cart before the horse.
“We need to figure out what our vision is and what our plan is,” she said. “It’s premature to decide to move the fairgrounds if we don’t know what we’re going to be doing with the existing fairgrounds. These are expensive county assets and we need to plan.”
Commissioner Doug Smith questioned Mr. Stokus about the purpose and use of the proposed site, which is currently classified as surplus county property.
The assistant county administrator admitted the official intent was “a little foggy.”
“My understanding is that South Florida took the properties that Martin County purchased and condensed them and put them with their bigger part of their water project, and we received this 107 acres of less-valuable, fallow citrus land based on the zoning on this for recreational use,” he responded.
Commissioner Smith concurred with that assessment and expressed his backing for the proposed fair usage since it “fit the description” of the required recreational usage.
“I think for the benefit of Martin County residents and taxpayers, it’s a perfectly great idea,” he said. “So just on the face of where we are today and what you’re asking us, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to move forward.”
For his part, Commission Chairman Ed Ciampi said he’d been having talks with Fair Association Manager Jay Spicer about the “possibility of moving out there or to another location for many, many years,” and felt the fair itself shouldn’t be bound to the current site simply because the county doesn’t know what to do with the land afterwards.
“The concept of what we’re going to do with the existing location actually has very little to do with the folks that are here from the fair,” he said. “That’s not their responsibility or their requirement. The fair is currently -- and has been for 60 years -- operating very effectively and efficiently and successfully and is a tremendous asset to Martin County residents.”
Mr. Spicer then addressed the Board and Commissioner Heard in particular, emphasizing that his proposal for the new site would be much more than an annual event.
“Madam Heard, it’s not about the fair anymore,” he said. “The fair is an event that happens on the property one week a year, but this park is more inclusive of youth and community activities that will serve the community all year-round.”
The fair manager then went on to detail the planned facilities for the property, which will include a soapbox derby, archery center, equestrian center, livestock pavilion, an 80,000-square-foot expo center, a midway for carnivals and other activities and an attraction he referred to as “the farm.”
“We have a vision for a Florida Cracker Village historical center with museums,” he explained. “We’ve already been in contact with folks about relocating some buildings and building replicas of some buildings. We have the Ashley Gang exhibit that will be making a permanent home here and other things on the farm as well, like a blacksmith shop, horticultural exhibits and a petting zoo.”
As far as whether the Martin County Fair and Youth Livestock Show would lose attendance or participation at the new location, Mr. Spicer believes it wouldn’t affect his current tenants because he charges them very reasonable rent and the drive takes less time from the current location then driving to U.S. 1 in Jensen Beach.
“We offer them a more affordable price,” he exclaimed. “Ninety-two percent of the groups that we have talked to that use the place now have agreed for them it’s about cost and space, so they’re willing to go over there.”
Commissioner Heard then questioned Mr. Spicer on his funding plan, which she said “relied heavily on others” including a hoped-for $1.6-million Department of Environmental Protection grant.
“Do you have that grant?” she asked.
Mr. Spicer replied negatively, insisting that applying for grants and outside funding would be useless without a signed lease.
“Until I have the paper in my hand that says we have possession of the property, I have no leverage,” he said. “They’re not going to give us any kind of funds for that.”
The commissioner, who ultimately cast the lone dissenting vote on the lease agreement, referred to the proposal “as a multimillion-dollar risk.”
“It’s troubling to me that you haven’t acquired commitments of funding from anyone and you’re relying upon Martin County taxpayers’ generosity to lease this valuable piece of property to you and then fund infrastructure,” Commissioner Heard said. “I’m completely onboard with preserving farm land and preserving that tradition, but I’m also Martin County’s fiduciary representative and a very conservative one at that. You need to raise money first, and you need to show us more concrete intent than a funding plan that really relies upon promises.”
Chairman Ciampi disagreed with that assessment.
“I can’t imagine you going out to deep-pocketed folks and asking them to participate when officially you have nothing,” he said to Mr. Spicer. “So to me, this is the first step, and we’re showing our support and our belief in you.”
Commissioner Stacey Hetherington also chimed in, expressing support for the Fair’s expansion plans and bemoaning the fact that schools were gradually withdrawing their support for the Future Farmers of America and 4H programs.
“We’re losing a lot of our agricultural heritage,” she said. “We’ve talked for many years about equestrian tourism in Palm City and Indiantown, and I love the way that you’ve incorporated some of those ideas to draw people all year long.”
Three members of the public also expressed their support for the proposal, including Stuart Mayor Becky Bruner.
“I didn’t believe or think we would ever get to this point with the Fair,” she exclaimed. “Everybody is this community is willing to watch this grow and get it going.”
The Commission subsequently voted 4-1 to approve the lease, with Commissioner Heard dissenting.