Clackamas County ponders fairgrounds' future, new facilities

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Laurie Bothwell, executive director of the Clackamas County Fair, stands as the livestock barn is demolished. The 108th annual Clackamas County Fairgrounds opens in August and for the first time in 90 years, its signature livestock barn with the saw-toothed roof won’t be there.

Instead, livestock and the families who raise them will be housed mostly in two large tent-like temporary structures, which rent for $45,000. The livestock barn, beset by maintenance problems for at least the past decade, was deemed unsafe after six inches of snow fell in February.

Gresham resident Linda Burns, superintendent for the Clackamas County 4-H beef program, says she will miss that old barn. “It’s been a phenomenal place for my kids to grow up and the lifelong friendships that they’ve built there,” Burns says.

The 130-by-320-foot barn was built in 1924 and has been maintained and improved upon for years largely through volunteer labor. That has been part of the problem, says County Commissioner Jim Bernard, who is the commission’s liaison to the fair board. The saw-tooth roof pooled rainwater and leaked. Support beams were put directly on dirt instead of concrete, so they just rotted from the bottom.

Bernard says he hopes to get the community excited about a new multimillion-dollar, multi-use structure that could be rented for concerts and car shows, events that were not possible with the old barn.

“That building, because of the structure, had a lot of limitations,” he says. “I’ve gone to the fair my whole life. But a building’s a building.”

Held accountable

Clackamas County Business and Community Services Director Gary Barth says historically the county has had minimal involvement with the fairgrounds. The fair board is independent and employs its own staff.

Clackamas County Fairgrounds Director Laurie Bothwell says the fairgrounds has never had enough money for its maintenance needs. “So many fairs across America are in the same state we are with deferred maintenance,” Bothwell says. “We’re going to build on the future and stop patching the past.”

But many are pointing fingers about whose responsibility it was to maintain the facilities.

Gladstone property manager Kevin Johnson grew up going to the county fair and says that, though he believes the current Clackamas County commission is trying to straighten things out, county property has been too poorly maintained for too long.

“It seems like their solution is to let something fall down and then try to figure out how to get us to pay to replace it,” Johnson says. “It’s time somebody is held accountable for mismanagement of county property.”

Marc Gonzales is the finance director in charge of facilities maintenance at Clackamas County. He says that while most of the county’s 1.2 million square feet is under regularly scheduled maintenance programs, there are a few properties — such as Parrott Creek Child and Family Services in Oregon City and the fairgrounds — that are more independently managed.

“We’ve been asked from time to time to help with those buildings and we’ve responded when asked,” Gonzales says. “Fairgrounds issues have never been on our radar until this (fiscal) year.”

A lot of angst

Fair board President Dan Sandberg grew up in Canby and says he is sorry to see the barn go, too. “There’s a lot of strong feelings towards the old barn and I understand that because I obviously grew up there too. But then again, I’m not against change,” Sandberg says.

Beginning last summer, the fair board had been going through the initial stages of a visioning process for a new master plan of the fairgrounds. Sandberg says the last one was completed in 1996 and showed that the barn had only a few more useable years left. An employee discovered the 1996 plan recently and the all-volunteer fair board is now planning to update it after this year’s fair wraps up.

Commissioner Martha Schrader says she went through the barn 10 years ago with restoration specialists in an effort to preserve the barn, but at that time the fair board preferred to raise money for a new barn and tear down the old one.

“I believe I was the only one at the time who was feeling a lot of angst about that,” Schrader says.

The Clackamas County Fair Improvement Foundation started raising funds in 2007 and has $236,683 earmarked for a new barn, according to Bothwell. Initial estimates of a barn replacement are around $2 million to $5 million.

Commission Chair John Ludlow told Bothwell at a June 24 study session that it will be tough to find that much at the county. “Before we invest any more hard dollars into this place, you know, some of us need to get a little more familiar with where you are and, let alone that, where you’re going.”

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