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Land deal is praised by city, county

Taking part in last week
Taking part in last week's press conference were (from left) King County Executive Ron Sims, Enumclaw Chamber Director Cathy Rigg, Enumclaw Mayor John Wise and Enumclaw City Councilwoman Liz Reynolds.
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Kind words and handshakes were in abundance last week, as city and county officials gathered to officially announce the pending transfer of the King County Fairgrounds from the county to the city of Enumclaw.

“We see this agreement as a major catalyst for economic development in the rural community,” County Executive Ron Sims said. “The city of Enumclaw has been very proactive in defining its future, and we're eager to support the city in achieving its goals. This agreement will provide many benefits for the people of the city and the county.”

Enumclaw Mayor John Wise, a vocal supporter of a plan to turn the fairgrounds into a premier Northwest facility for the equestrian set, was equally enthused.

“This is a grand day for Enumclaw,” he said.

“The fairgrounds have always been important to our community and it has been a pleasure to work with the county to help realize our dream of creating a major destination that would attract visitors and new revenues to our area,” he added.

The deal also includes four other parcels of county-owned property. Making the transfer to city ownership will be Sportsman Park, just across state Route 410 from the fairgrounds; Farmer Park, a small, undeveloped park at the western edge of the city; and two grassy fields adjacent to the fairgrounds that have been used solely for parking.

A key provision in the deal is a $2 million transfer of cash from the county to the city, money earmarked to help the city transform the fairgrounds into a tourist attraction.

While both Sims and Wise generally addressed the transfer as something of a done deal, both noted the agreement is subject to approval by members of the King County Council and Enumclaw City Council. If approved by both bodies, the transfer would become effective Jan. 1; the $2 million would also move from a county account to city coffers with the first of the year.

The city's interest in the fairgrounds property has been linked to a tourism and marketing study, which concluded that Enumclaw should position itself as the equestrian capital of the Pacific Northwest. Such a move, the study noted, would be the best way to assure Enumclaw's financial future, by drawing the horse crowd and their discretionary dollars.

Wise has jumped on the equestrian theme and City Council members have endorsed the idea in principal. The move has to make financial sense, however, and the city has commissioned a feasibility study aimed at determining the level of success Enumclaw could expect from investing in the equestrian motif.

Results of that study, according to City Administrator Mark Bauer, should be available before the end of the year.

Both Wise and Bauer were quick to point out that taking possession of the fairgrounds isn't tied solely to the equestrian idea. City administration is viewing the fairgrounds as the key to Enumclaw's tourism future, no matter what direction it takes. If the equestrian theme is eventually viewed as too risky, the city will look in another direction, Wise said. But whatever course is charted, he emphasized, the fairgrounds will likely be a key part of the puzzle.

Adding support to the fairgrounds acquisition was the Enumclaw Area Chamber of Commerce. During last week's press conference, Executive Director Cathy Rigg noted “the surrounding community has strongly supported the idea of a tourism plan, and has shown a great interest in a first-class equestrian center.”

Wise was quick to address concerns that city ownership of the fairgrounds could hasten the departure of the King County Fair. Just the opposite is true, he said, adding that the city will be making the fairgrounds available for the fair, at no charge.

Sims also spoke directly to the fate of the fair, which has seen attendance plummet in recent years. “We are already budgeting for a fair in 2007,” he said.

Wise also attempted to reassure those groups who have used the grounds for their events. He noted his hope that events such as the Scottish Highland Games and Olympic Kennel Club dog show will continue bringing their annual events to Enumclaw.

Wise said city employees will be working with county staff until the end of the year to complete a full inventory of the fairgrounds, assessing what might need attention. Things could be relatively quiet for three or four years, he said, until a tourism plan can be finalized and put in motion.

During that time, the city hopes to use the interest from the county's $2 million contribution - along with the estimated $175,000 generated annually in user fees - to maintain and operate the grounds.

“This will be run as an enterprise fund,” Wise said, meaning the fairgrounds will have to pay its way without contributions from the city's general fund.

Sims said the regular employees who currently work at the fairgrounds will be offered jobs elsewhere within the King County Parks system.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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