SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Fair is underway with thousands of people from all over the state expected to enjoy the sights, sounds and unique culinary specialties available only at the 11-day annual Utah agricultural festival.
But that tradition could be in jeopardy if the Utah Legislature does not execute a new lease extension for the 66-acre property. The current lease expires in 2017.
On Friday, members of the Fairpark Corporation board of directors made a plea to several lawmakers to sign the lease so that the board can negotiate needed agreements to optimize the property to its full potential of public use, said board member Maura Carabello.
"We have a 20-year plan to not only keep the state fair, but we also want to add an indoor-outdoor multiuse stadium and a new exhibition center … to have more Utahns use this facility more than they already do," she said.
The long-range plan includes upgrading the 13 historic buildings currently in use on the property, all of which would require a significant infusion of financial capital to upgrade, Carabello said.
Some of the proposed improvements include new audio/visual technology, telephone/Internet (Wi-Fi), security, parking, signage, along with catering and concessions. After years of deferred maintenance, the buildings and grounds, including the drainage system, need upgrading. Additionally, the property would need annual appropriations to meet its long-term primary business objectives, she said.
However, nothing will be feasible until the governor and the Legislature officially approve the lease.
Without the lease, we're stuck. ... a vendor doesn't want to sign an agreement with us, nobody wants to plan even their family reunions, let alone their corporate events when they know we don't have a lease beyond 2017.
–Maura Carabello, Fairpark Corp.
"Without the lease, we're stuck," Carabello said. "Without (it), a vendor doesn't want to sign an agreement with us, nobody wants to plan even their family reunions, let alone their corporate events when they know we don't have a lease beyond 2017."
The board talked repeatedly Friday about the importance of having, preferably, a 50-year lease in place in order to achieve the maximum long-term viability of the property.
The lease issue has been a major concern for several years, dating back to 2010 when the state Legislature developed the framework to renew the Fairpark lease. But nothing has been done since, and that inaction has cost the state dearly as Fairpark administrators have struggled to find a way to generate revenue outside of the fair.
Earlier this year, the board hoped a solution had been found, but it was lost when lawmakers failed to get the lease agreement finalized in a timely manner.
In late February, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen notified Fairpark administrators that the club was rescinding its January proposal to develop a stadium facility at the fairgrounds. Just weeks before, Hansen announced his intention to build an $18 million, 8,000-seat stadium at the Fairpark, with the stadium to serve as the future home of the Real Monarchs.
In an effort to expedite the project's proposed development, Hansen had agreed to pay the entire cost of construction at the Fairpark, contingent on the state extending the Fairpark's lease on the fairgrounds for an additional 40 years.
At the time, a Fairpark board member said the only major hurdle to construction of the new stadium was the extension of the lease, which is set to expire in 2017. But legislative wrangling caused the team to pull out of the deal, with a team executive noting that the process was moving at such a tediously slow pace that development would not be able to begin for at least another 18 months.
In March, RSL announced an agreement to build a new stadium complex for the Real Monarchs in West Valley City near the Maverik Center. The team hopes to break ground on a facility this year.
As it stands currently, state lawmakers are still in the process of figuring out the lease issue. Until the matter is resolved, no other deal can formally take place at the Fairpark.
But following Friday's meeting, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, was optimistic that armed with the new information in the business plan put forth by the board, lawmakers could be swayed to put a lease agreement in place in the near future.
"The (plan) put together by the board is a huge road map for us to follow that we haven't had," he said. "I think that will resolve almost everything that was (of concern)."
Meanwhile, the State Fairpark Corp. — an independent nonprofit public corporation created in the 2011 legislative session as an entity outside of state government to pursue profitable ventures for the site — will continue its efforts to maintain and improve the Fairpark grounds and its facilities.
"We believe that honoring our culture, investing in our recreational economy and tourism are the highest and best use of this state property," Carabello said. "We know with the proper investment, this area will serve the citizens and the economy well."
Contributing: Ashley Kewish