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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Gainesville and Newberry officials are trying to persuade the Alachua County Commission to put the Alachua County Fairgrounds in their respective stomping grounds.

The city that secures the fairgrounds is expected to get the tourism that comes with the horse shows and large-scale festivals held on the county-owned site every year.

Whichever city can persuade the commission that its site is better for the county will reap the benefits. But it's possible they'll have competition.

The commission noted last week it would consider moving the fairgrounds from Gainesville to Newberry, but it also opened the floor for a month to other proposals for projects that use money from the county tourist development tax, a 2-cent fee that is added onto bills at hotels, motels, camp sites and short-term rentals. The terms allow for the possibility for other cities to pitch in for the fairgrounds.

The Alachua County Fair this year is scheduled to kick off Oct. 22 at the current fairgrounds location just south of the Gainesville Regional Airport.

The fair will eventually move to the chosen location after the county decides where to put the fairgrounds and any necessary construction is finished. Right now, there is no set date for moving the fairgrounds.

The county's current plan is to move the grounds to about 148 acres of land the county bought on Northeast Waldo Road in east Gainesville. Half of that land, about 75 acres, would be used for the fairgrounds, said Robert Avery, the county's parks superintendent.

The county will decide whether that plan will change after the requests have been submitted for tourist development tax projects.

Mark Sexton, spokesman for Alachua County, said the commission wants to be fair to all of the cities in the county, including Newberry.

"The commission just wants to give the City of Newberry its due," Sexton said.

Gainesville officials aren't thrilled about the possible change of location.

Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe sent a letter to county commissioners last week, which asked them to keep the fairgrounds in Gainesville to avoid the possible perception that they aren't interested in developing that part of the county.

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"Such action may well encourage public perception that there is a lack of commitment to revitalize economic development in east Alachua County or worse still, that an impartial, equitable and transparent allocation process has been arbitrarily compromised and circumvented," Lowe's letter reads.

Gainesville City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said he's concerned that buying a new piece of land for the fairgrounds when the county already owns land in Gainesville is an unwise use of taxpayers' money.

Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad said it would be cheaper for the county to choose Newberry because it already has a developed space for the fairgrounds at its Canterbury Equestrian Showplace.

He said it would cost between $4 million and $6 million for the county to buy the roughly 86-acre site. The site has not yet been appraised. It would cost between $7 million and $8 million to fix before the fairgrounds could start hosting events.

The Waldo Road site wouldn't cost the county anything to buy because the county already owns it.

The county bought the land for $2 million during the 2006-2007 fiscal year. It would take about $22 million to get the fairgrounds in working order. More improvements could follow later.

Conrad said horse, cattle and agriculture shows usually fill fairground agendas, and residents of Newberry are frequent faces at those events.

If the fairgrounds move to Newberry, he said, the county land in Gainesville will be freed up to create an industrial park where businesses could create jobs in the city.

"It's kind of a win-win situation both for east Gainesville and for Newberry," Conrad said. "But we need to do a better job at getting people to understand why it's best for both."

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