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County eyes fair planning date
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County eyes fair planning date

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Missoula County has targeted September as a possible date to begin discussions about the future of the Western Montana Fair.

In an administrative meeting Wednesday morning, Chief Administrative Officer Ann Mary Dussault briefed the commissioners about upcoming planning for the future of the fairgrounds. The public has long awaited a timeline and cost estimate for the project.

The county plans to contract with Crandall Arambula, a Portland-based city and regional planning firm, to provide economical, sustainable and public-supported options for the fairgrounds' future. Crandall Arambula is also the firm helping craft Missoula's downtown master plan.

A draft of the contract is circulating among county staffers and will likely end up on the commissioners' desks for signature by July 1.

The future of the Western Montana Fair and the fairground site has been in flux for more than a year. Revenue generated from the fair doesn't cover the cost of maintaining the buildings at the site, and the county wants feedback about whether to change the fair, its location or both.

The Western Montana Fair will remain at its current location through 2010. The planning process will focus on what to do next.

However, "there's no discussion about not having a fair," Dussault said.

The fair planning is projected to last until July 2009.

The idea is not to overlap public processes, Dussault said, referring to the fair and the downtown master plan. However, it's not likely that the downtown master plan will finish up until October, said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association.

The county has budgeted $130,000 for the entire fair planning process, with $95,000 for the contract work and an additional $15,000 in reimbursable expenses to the urban designers for flight and hotel accommodations when traveling to Montana.

The remaining money will cover unforeseen expenditures. It's unknown whether a transportation and market analysis is necessary, or if there will be a need for a fair programming expert. But the county tried to cushion the budget to accommodate some excess costs.

The county did not shop around for a project consultant. The theory was that Crandall Arambula already knew the area and the market - and the public reaction to their work on the downtown master plan has been positive, Dussault said.

To compare the size and scope of the two projects, the downtown planning process cost roughly $450,000 and the county's project will cost just over $100,000.

Much of the research necessary to complete the downtown planning project will benefit the fair planning process, Dussault said. It's hoped that the county won't have to pay for a market analysis because the firm should already have that information, she said.

The first phase of the planning process will look at redevelopment of the fairgrounds and maintaining its location. The second phase will explore alternate sites.

As the county has said before, it is looking at the "highest and best use" of the fairgrounds.

As early as this summer, the county plans to do a little front work.

County staffers want to meet with members of the community who have previously voiced a strong interest in the future of the fairgrounds. That may include fair volunteers, 4-H members, neighbors who live near the fairgrounds and horse racing advocates.

"We (the county) need to step up and take some ownership in this," said Chief Financial Officer Dale Bickell, who will take over as chief administrative officer when Dussault retires at the end of June. "When the consultants are in town, they will have a short window of opportunity to talk with these folks. We want to talk to people who have voiced interest and make sure they are ready for the consultants to arrive."

As for the future of horse racing, that's an issue separate from the planning process, Dussault said. Whether there will be horse racing at the 2009 Western Montana Fair is still up in the air, she said. Its existence depends on the sport's viability and sustainability.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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