Warren County event center to be developed by port authority

Plans are back on track to build an event center at the Warren County Fairgrounds.

Lebanon Planning Commission has approved a scaled-down version of the event center, still covering 17,500 square feet and including 530 parking spots. When the doors open, the facility will have an estimated capacity of 1,000 people, Gene Steiner, chairman of the Warren County Agricultural Society, told the commission.

In addition to hosting weddings and other functions, the event center is counted on to serve during the July fair week for the loss of grandstands demolished in May 2017 after horse racing was moved out of Lebanon to the Miami Valley Gaming & Racing racino.

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“Our goal is to have it ready by the fair. We will see,” Steiner said.

The project is expected to be built for about $3.4 million, rather than the $3.8 million previously projected. The cost reduction is in part because materials used during construction would not be taxed because it will be owned by the Warren County Port Authority.

On Sept. 24, the authority board approved agreements granting $3 million from the county to the port authority to help pay for the project and take over construction management from the county.

The county committed money the racino operators agreed to donate to the county as part of agreements paving the way for the move out to the new site, just east of Interstate 75 on Ohio 63.

At the September meeting, the authority board also approved agreements setting the stage to lease the land from the county and lease the finished event center to the agricultural society, better known as the fair board.

Port authority projects are exempt from sales tax, as well as prevailing wage requirements and other laws and regulations required in public developments.

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In June, the county commissioners put the brakes on the event center project as the cost rose to $3.8 million, in part due to a stormwater retention area and waterlines required by the city.

The commissioners appealed to Lebanon to help make up the difference, resurrecting an old feud over splitting $3 million in state funds set aside for cities that lost racetracks to racinos.

Lebanon purchased a $250,000 piece of the fairgrounds from the county for a new fire station. But the city council is using the last $400,000 of Lebanon’s $1.5 million share of the redevelopment money to set up an entertainment district on Mulberry Street in downtown.

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Last week, Steiner and Martin Russell, executive director of the port authority, expressed hope the event center and parking lot would be completed in time for the county fair, July 15-20, 2019.

“Within weeks we should have our building permit,” Steiner said.

Russell, also the deputy county administrator, said staff was working on the final development package, including the lease adding it to the portfolio of buildings held by the port authority.

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The lease between the county and fair board has to be rewritten too, Russell said.

Russell said the total costs had not been nailed down.

“We think they are holding fairly pat,” he said.

He hesitated to commit to completion in time for the fair.

“I would like to see the project move forward as quickly as possible,” he said.

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Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer said the event center was an important addition to the community.

The event center is part of city plans to extend the business district north on Broadway up to the fairgrounds “so that we see that whole area develop in a way Lebanon can be proud of,” Brewer said during the planning commission meeting.

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