State Fair relocation faced daunting challenges SanTan Sun News

State Fair relocation faced daunting challenges

August 18th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
State Fair relocation faced daunting challenges
Community
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By Paul Maryniak
Executive Editor

Chandler won’t have the Arizona State Fair as a neighbor this fall after all.

The Arizona Exposition and State Fair Board 10 days ago announced that the fair will be held in October at the fairgrounds at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road.

The announcement came less than five months after the board voted unanimously to move the fair to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on Gila River Indian Community land just south of the interchange between I-10 and the Loop 202 South Mountain /Santan freeways.

But documents obtained by the SanTan Sun News show that less than a month after the March 25 decision, significant doubts arose as to whether the relocation could be pulled off.

Those documents, obtained through a public records request, show that fair officials projected a $2.6 million loss if it had been held at the reservation. That included a loss of $1.6 million in income and just under $975,000 in additional expenses.

For the years 2018 and 2019, records show, the fair averaged $12.2 million in annual income and $8.3 million in expenses for an average annual net income of $3.8 million.

The same day as the board’s unanimous March 25 vote, Gov. Doug Ducey’s office released an announcement hailing it.

The announcement said the GRIC site “is larger than the size of the State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, allowing for appropriate social distancing and other public health mitigation measures.”

It also noted that the fairgrounds had become “a vital location for mass testing and vaccine distribution.”

By moving the event, it added, the fairgrounds could “continue to be available for public health needs in an underserved area of our community” while preventing the second consecutive cancellation of the annual four-week fair because of the pandemic.

The board blamed its change of heart on “an inability to secure the necessary infrastructure to hold the fair at the Gila River Indian Community’s Reservation in time for October.”

It also said, “related supply chain problems across the country are causing delays in materials and supplies needed to hold the fair at the” GRIC site and that “manufacturers are unable to guarantee on-time delivery.”

“The Gila River Indian Community and Arizona State Fair continue to study the possibility of moving the Fair to the Reservation in 2022, in a manner that will be mutually beneficial to both parties,” the board said.

It also included a statement by board Chairman Jonathan Lines, an influential Yuma County Republican and former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.

“We are committed to creating the best experience for the State Fair guests, partners and sponsors,” Lines said. “Due to the limited timeframe and supply concerns, keeping the Fair at its existing home makes the most sense for 2021.

“We remain committed to working with the Gila River Indian Community to see if we can move the Fair to the Gila River Indian Reservation in 2022 in a manner that is mutually beneficial to both sides.”

While noting the fair will run Oct. 2-30, the board’s statement did not mention there will be no concerts this year because of scheduling difficulties created by the pandemic.

Wild Horse Pass Development Authority Board Chairman Donald Antoine Sr. started the chain of events leading to the March 25 decision with a letter last Oct. 28 to the State Fair Board.

The authority is the development arm of the Gila River Indian Community.

“WHPDA has the space and know how to host and deliver a meaningful, safe and appropriately scaled outdoor event,” Antone wrote, offering to hold the fair in March and stating:

“In a time where diverse cultures need to unit more than ever, WHPDA is hopeful they can be helpful in partnering with the Arizona State Fair to allow our community to safely come together.”

In a run-up to a subsequent meeting Nov. 12 between state and tribe officials, state fair staff drew up a lengthy memo outlining the wide array of issues that needed to be addressed if the fair were to be moved to an 1,800-acre site in an area around the Motorsports Park and Rawhide Western Town.

Even then, concerns were raised about a walking distance of a quarter-mile to three quarters of a mile between the fairgrounds and parking area, a limited water supply, the existence of only one “convention type building,” the fact that all electrical power would have to be supplied by generators.

Other concerns cited in the memo included the fact that workers comp and insurance requirements for contractors and businesses operation on reservation land “are typically more expensive and a little different than standard Workmen’s Comp.”

Still, on Feb. 25, Meg Anema, executive management assistance for the fair, emailed the exposition board, writing “the future is certainly filled with exciting opportunities.”

Nevertheless, the concerns raised that had already been raised over preparing a site from scratch for an event that has drawn as many as a million people in past years prompted fair officials to decide that a March event was too ambitious.

Taking note of that in its March 25 announcement, Ducey’s office said that by holding the fair later this year, the state could “move forward with fair planning and not risk the event being canceled again due to uncertainty.

“As always, the fair will include agricultural, cultural and performing arts components. Additionally, given the location on native lands, a special focus will be placed on Indian Country and the state’s rich Native American heritage,” his office declared.

Less than a month later, however, the scope of challenges widened.

“While we continue to explore and find alternative and creative solutions to our infrastructure needs, costs continue to increase,” an unsigned memo dated April 20 stated. “We are finding that nothing is impossible, but expenses may prevent it from being viable or obtainable.”

“As costs continue to rise,” it continued, “there is a more prevalent feel of parties questioning the viability of making the fair work at WHPMSP.” The acronym refers to the Motorsports Park.

Both the state and authority “entered into the negotiations agreeing that infrastructure cost would be absorbed by the Gila River Indian Community,” the memos stated, putting infrastructure costs at between $3 million and $3.5 million with other costs such as lighting, rodeo amenities and concert arenas at another “$1 million plus.”

There were other concerns as well.

While the memo made no mention of weekend traffic disruptions created by the Broadway Curve project, it referred to upcoming meetings involving the Arizona Department of Transportation, state police and various local police and public works departments to discuss solutions to “freeway traffic and street traffic concerns due to large crowd size on normal busy freeways.”

Staff also was uncertain whether a solution could even be found for the fact that neither state Department of Public Safety nor local police have jurisdiction on tribal land.

Noting that DPS and GRIC police were working on a solution, the memo also the tribal police department did not have enough staffing to handle all the traffic and other law enforcement concerns anyway.

The memo also referred to the need for additional septic tanks and the fact that the main water pipe across the fair site was only two inches in circumference and “maybe insufficient.”

Fair staff also struggled to find a donation of dirt for the rodeo to avert a cost of at least $100,000. The rodeo would cost money anyway because bleachers would have to be purchased.

And the memo noted that it probably would be a good idea to “start calendar with other events” since no one had apparently had a firm idea of what else would be going on in the way of rawhide concerts, golf tournaments, home games at the new Phoenix Rising arena or at Wild Horse Pass Casino.

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