On Oct. 30, 2006, the King County Council deeded the Enumclaw Fairgrounds to the city of Enumclaw. King County had been losing money on the property and was looking for a way to get the monkey off their back. It was sucking money from the county and the County Council wanted to find a way to end the hemorrhaging.
The mayor of Enumclaw at the time, John Wise, saw this as an opportunity to take the fairgrounds and make it into an economic driver for the city. His vision was to make the fair grounds into an equestrian center that would draw millions of people and their dollars to our city, spurring economic growth.
In order for the county to rid itself of the economic drain, the County Council offered $2 million to sweeten the pot. One million was to go to operations and one million was to be used for capital expenditures. The city of Enumclaw grabbed the deal.
From Oct. 30, 2006, to February 2010, Mayor Wise, with the approval of the City Council, poured approximately $600,000 of the operating reserves and $400,000 of the capital (building enhancements) reserves into the property.
After John Wise was voted out of office by a nearly 3 to 1 margin in 2009, the city council voted to drop his vision of an equestrian center because it was too expensive to implement – $32 million to build the facility. Additionally, it was very unlikely that the city could break even if it were built.
Liz Reynolds became the new mayor with a different approach and leadership style. Her vision for the renamed Expo Center was to run it like a business. The old events coordinator had resigned the previous fall of 2009 and a new events coordinator was hired beginning in March 2010. The goals of the new coordinator were to cut costs and bring in new business and events. Any capital improvements were done with the goal of increasing income.
The City Council’s directive to the administration was to make the Expo Center self-sufficient by 2014. From March 2010 through 2011 that directive seemed close to being accomplished. The drain on operating reserves was cut from approximately $250,000 per year to $80,000 being withdrawn in 2011.
Unfortunately, 2012 saw a reversal to that downward trend – $134,000 was withdrawn from operating reserves, rather than $40,000 as hoped and planned.
The council became worried at this reversal and had a workshop April 1, 2013. The administration’s goal was to discuss the city’s vision for the Expo Center with the council and collaborate to find a solution to the city’s dilemma.
Instead of a visioning discussion, much of the workshop was a heated confrontation with some on the council placing blame for the probable lack of financial self-sufficiency by 2014 at the feet of the administration.
As I watched the workshop through video streaming on the city website, I saw three different positions:
• Some on the council took the stance of staying the course of the past three years of marketing the Expo Center and running it like a business, hoping revenues would increase to the point the Expo Center would break even and be self-sufficient by 2014.
• Some came up with ideas for making the Expo Center more profitable by enlarging the recreational vehicle lot by wiping out the large animal barn, putting in a sewer system and charging rents to large recreational vehicles visiting Mount Rainier. Another idea was to build a driving range to increase income. A third was to rent out the rarely used buildings like the rabbit barn to long-term customers who would pay rent. A fourth idea was to link the activity building with the exhibition hall by connecting the two with a
covered area so that larger indoor events could be held in a bigger venue.
• The third position really was no vision at all. It was to place responsibility for failure to break even on the administration. To my mind, this avoided the real issue. We have a problem, how do we work together to solve it?
I saw two different perspectives on leadership:
• The mayor and her administration are supposed to come up with a way to make the Expo Center self-sustaining. They’re the ones who have the time and expertise. Council’s only role is to set policy and pay the bills.
• The mayor’s position is that this problem lies with the entire city government and that, in order to solve it, administration, the council and concerned citizens will have to work together to solve a problem.
It’s my view that the mayor and her administration have done an excellent job with an impossible situation, unloaded on us by the County Council.
Now is not the time for recriminations, especially when they’re not accurate. After a discussion with the event coordinator for the Expo Center, the city is still on track to becoming self-sufficient by the end of 2014. Losses this year are expected to drop to $50,000 from operating reserves.
Is there anything else that can be done? Yes! Now is the time for the whole community to come together to find more places to cut costs and new ideas to increase revenue.
Courage and creativity are what is needed from our government leaders at this time, especially from our city council.