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The new event space could break ground as early as this year; completion envisioned in late 2020.

COURTESY ART - The planned Washington County Events Center at the Washington County Fair Complex, would include 91,500 square feet of exposition space inside and a large plaza available for large events. Washington County commissioners are one step closer to breaking ground on a new multipurpose event center at the Washington County Fair Complex in Hillsboro.

They voted April 24 to exempt the project from competitive bidding requirements, under which the lowest responsive bidder gets the contract.

Instead, the county will invite competitive proposals for a combined construction manager/general contractor to build and oversee the project. County officials will evaluate the proposals based on several standards, including cost, and then negotiate a contract with sponsors of one of the proposals.

The county has been working on the project for years, and commissioners hope to break ground on the 91,200-square-foot events center later this year.

Completion is due in late 2020.

The commissioners voted a few hours after a joint session with the fair board, which oversees the fair complex.

Board Chairman Andy Duyck acknowledged criticism during a public hearing that selection of a construction manager/general contractor should have preceded architectural work on the project, not followed it.

But he said "it's not unheard of, either."

On a non-county project he is involved with, Duyck said, the same sequence was followed.

"Right out of the gate, the contractor we chose was able to save us several hundred thousand dollars just because of the timing of how he was able to bring in subcontractors," he said. "I have no doubt this process could save us a lot. It is definitely a different world today than it was a year or two ago."

For years after the economic downturn of a decade ago, little construction work was performed in public or private projects.

A dissent was voiced by Tom Black of Hillsboro, who has been critical of the commissioners for authorizing and financing the project without an election.

Voters rejected financing measures in 2002 and 2008, both by majorities of 70 percent.

The county will pay for the current project largely through Gain Share funds — state payments that recoup losses from property tax breaks the county granted for investments of more than $100 million, such as those by Intel and Genentech. Washington County has been the largest recipient under Gain Share, which state lawmakers renewed in 2015.

Hillsboro has pledged $8 million from lodging tax proceeds, and the Washington County Visitors Association, $1 million, for the project.

None of those sources requires voter approval.

Black criticized the exemption process approved by the commissioners, although he conceded it would speed up construction.

"Now you're going to have an exemption process so you can get somebody in after the barn door has already been opened. That does not make sense," Black said. "So I don't see the benefit in that, other than getting somebody in fast and get a few cost savings up front."

Despite recent public meetings about the project, Black said he believes they were mostly for show.

"We disregard the public when we say we are going to do something," he said. "Apparently we are going ahead full speed because we are going to get to that 'golden-shovel moment.' To me, that really perturbs me. We are spending public dollars on a public facility that the public does not even get to choose the drapes for."

Black dislikes the preliminary design, saying that it fails to acknowledge the county's roots in natural resources.

The events center will replace the current 24,000-square-foot main exhibit hall at the fairgrounds. Built in 1952, the cinder-block building has long been considered unsafe if an earthquake or other natural disaster occurs.

The exhibit hall and others on the fairgrounds campus were closed earlier this spring after a report claimed the damage had worsened and the buildings were a danger to the public.

Commissioners voted March 6 to raze the exhibit hall.

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