Tension among county, advisory board could impact effort for $133 million improvement project at Montana Expo Park

The rift between the Montana Expo Park Advisory Board and the County Commission is continuing and causing some concern for those who have been working on the $133 million project to build a new multipurpose event center and other improvements at Montana Expo Park.

During the Feb. 17 fair board meeting, board members said that despite asking for more detailed, or understandable, financial information during a January meeting with the County Commission, they received the same format of financial documents as months past.

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Lori Cox of Eight18 Strategy attended the meeting and went through a financial trend report she’d developed for the board using three years worth of county financial documents.

Cox said she tried to develop a trend report for the board, but said it was likely incomplete because the county doesn’t provide descriptions or context for their funds to help understand the numbers.

Cox worked at Montana State Fair in Cascade County from 2003-2007 when the county contracted SMG to manage the fair, she was also the general manager of the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman and most recently, the director of the Nebraska State Fair.

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Now she’s back in Great Falls and working with the group of locals who are trying to develop a political action committee to be able to put the $133 million Expo Park project on the ballot in the near future.

In February 2019, consultants presented the updated slate of proposed improvements at Montana Expo Park, which include a new multipurpose event center with seating capacity for up to about 10,000; livestock facility relocation and upgrades including a new covered equestrian arena; improvements to the Pacific Steel and Recycling Area; renovations and additions to the RV area and site/roadway improvements.

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Right now, it’s still just a proposal to improve the 130-acre facility based on years of research and community outreach.

Implementing any of the improvements at Expo Park will require approval from the County Commission and would likely need a bond approved by voters in a countywide election to get the funding.

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As of now, the group proposing the improvements holds that the earliest it would go to the ballot is likely November 2022.

Cox is working with that group to form a political action committee. A PAC had been formed, but then dissolved due to COVID-19, according to Rebecca Engum, director of Great Falls Montana Tourism.

“There’s been hiccups in that process for awhile,” Engum said of developing the PAC.

The group is still working to regroup and create a PAC to mount a yes campaign should the Expo Park improvement project move forward and go to the ballot.

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The Tourism Business Improvement District  and Visit Great Falls Tourism have funded the studies for improvements at Expo Park but should the question go to voters on a November ballot, they are not legally able to lobby for the project. but a PAC would legally able to fundraise and lobby for passage of the measure.

But, the recent turmoil between the fair board and County Commissioners and concerns over the county’s transparency on Expo Park financials has put a damper on those efforts.

Cox said that the January meeting between the fair board and County Commissioners which publicly exposed the tension has “spooked” some members of the committee.

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In December, the fair board sent a letter to the County Commission requesting information about ExpoPark operations, particularly financials, and expressed frustration over previous requests that had been rebuffed and they’d been told that “the advisory board does not need to know” or “the advisory board doesn’t understand government budgeting.”

In their letter, the board writes that part of their responsibility is financial oversight of the facility.

In a January, Commissioner Joe Briggs sent a letter to the board in response and wrote that “you are very much mistaken in this regard. You are an advisory body that serves at the pleasure of the Board of the County Commissioners, you have no financial oversight authority.”

The groups met in January to discuss the fair board’s role but didn’t come to any substantive agreements.

“Without significant change managerially, there’s no way the county can support” a facility of the scale they want to build at Expo Park, Cox told the fair board during their Feb. 17 meeting.

“There’s no way we can go forward ethically for the taxpayer until we feel that confidence in putting a building here,” Cox said.

She said they aren’t giving up, but are waiting to see how the discussion and relationship between the County Commission and fair board progresses.

The improved facility would “be a game changer for Great Falls,” she said.

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The management structure at Expo Park is different than her time there from 2003-2007, when the facility was managed by SMG.

The City of Great Falls ran Expo Park for 15 years before the county resumed control and hired SMG in 2002 with a contract that was set to run through 2010, according to a 2009 Billings Gazette story, but opted to terminate the contract early in 2009.

In 2009, County Commissioner Joe Briggs said the county could save an estimated $200,000 by running the facility itself, according to the Gazette story.

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Cox said during the Feb. 17 fair board meeting that entertainment is “such a wonky thing compared to the rest of it” in terms of County Commissioners operating the fair as compared to their other traditional county services, such as public works, roads and public safety.

Cox told the board that the county should be planning and budgeting for the state fair more than a year in advance since entertainment acts typically book up 18-24 months out. She recommended that they build a reserve in case things go sideways, such as an artist canceling last minute or some other significant change.

She encouraged the board to ask questions of the County Commissioners, the Expo Park manager and budget officer to determine what some of the major swings in the Expo Park financials meant.

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Cox said that there aren’t breakdowns in the financial documents provided by the county on how much is spent on night concerts, ground entertainment, concessions and other components of the fairgrounds and “you need to see those breakdowns to see margins to give good advice on policies.”

Cox suggested that they ask about the revenue drop in fiscal year 2020, which ran July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020 since COVID would have affected the last quarter of that budget year, but revenues for interim events, which are events other than fair, were down by half from the year prior.

Some of the fluctuations in the financials are likely due to the roughly $2 million grandstands replacement project, which was complete in 2019, and the Paddock Club renovation.

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She said that it appeared to her that interim events, or the events at the fairgrounds that aren’t state fair, are losing money, which is the reason there’s a group trying to raise money to do major improvements.

Based on Cox’s analysis of the Expo Park financials, the venue is operating at a loss overall and showed a $1 million loss in fiscal year 2018, a $1.2 million loss in fiscal year 2019 and a $850,000 loss in fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, 2020.

Les Bruner, a fair board member, said that the current board is the first in awhile that’s pushed to review Expo Park financials.

The board’s request for more financial information has led to significant pushback from the County Commissioners, who removed Expo Park staff from the advisory board’s meetings last year, and did not attend or send a report to the board for their Feb. 17 meeting.

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Cox told the board that the discussion and push for financials “is a healthy thing not just for the venue but for the people.”

During the meeting, the fair board also discussed strengthening their committees and referred the consideration of food trucks versus concessions and the fair attendance fees to their committees to bring reports back to the board at their next meeting.

Board Chair Leanne Hall said their goal is to make those committees more active and move forward with recommendations for positive changes at Expo Park.