County considering disbanding fair advisory board

During their Sept. 22 work session, County Commissioner Don Ryan said that staff is proposing to disband the ExpoPark Advisory Board.

The move comes after a year of tension between commissioners and the board during which one of the primary points of contention was fair financials.

During the work session, Ryan said that “after many months of observation and information gathering, staff will be proposing a new structure to work with fair management. The proposal will be disbanding the ExpoPark Advisory Board, inherited from the old SMG model, and creating a resource team. The resource team will consist of one individual representing their area of interest or involvement in the fair. They will be the voice for their group. Success in each of these individual areas will result in an overall successful fair.”

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Fair board members told The Electric that they had not been made aware of the recommendation to disband the board and had not been asked for any feedback on the proposed resource team.

“We are disappointed, but not shocked, to hear that the ExpoPark director has recommended the dissolving of the ExpoPark Advisory Board. The ExpoPark Advisory Board has identified many opportunities to improve the Montana State Fair and ExpoPark. Those opportunities have been presented to both the ExpoPark staff and the Board of Cascade Commissioners. The recommendations have been critical, at times, of leadership to include the ExpoPark staff and BCC,” Leanne Hall and Cory Thompson, fair board chair and vice chair respectively, said in an email to The Electric.

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“Dissolving the ExpoPark Advisory Board is further evidence that the Board of Cascade County Commissioners are further distancing themselves from the taxpayers of Cascade County. It appears that they do not want to receive ideas, constructive criticism or recommendations from their own appointed advisory board,” Hall and Thompson said.

By comparison, this week, MetraPark in Billings hired Oak View Group Facilities, a venue management and event programming company based in L.A. “to increase the number of events hosted in the arena, the Billings Gazette reported.

Ryan said that the proposed resource team would include the following areas:

  • Exhibits: cultural, fine arts, etc.
  • Agricultural exhibits: cattle, sheep, rabbits, etc.
  • Food vendors
  • Commercial vendor: products and information booths
  • Gate operation and tickets
  • Parking and traffic management
  • Community impact: chamber, tourism
  • Security and safety
  • Entertainment: free acts, carnival and night shows

“The resource team representatives have a vested interest in the success of Montana State Fair and their feedback and suggested improvements will directly impact the fair. Staff feels the fair this last year was a tremendous success.  Hopefully, this change will enhance and promote the quality of future state fairs,” Ryan said during the Sept. 22 work session.

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Currently, the county fair board is a seven-member body and all members are appointed by the County Commission for three-year terms.

According to the county website, the fair board as it currently exists “serves as an advisory board to the County Commission and the state fair management on matters relative to the operation of the state fairgrounds and conduct of the annual state fair. Board members are expected to:

  • Represent interests that best serve the overall operation of the state fair
  • Work with Fair management in establishing shows, contests, policies, rules, fee schedules and contracting services and entertainment vendors to conduct operations for the Fair
  • Work with fair management in planning construction priorities and assist in consulting architects, planners and engineers in developing actual construction documents
  • Assist in preparation of capital construction budgets and annual operational budgets
  • Promote funding by communications with legislators, commissioners, and other funding sources
  • Promote image and attendance at the state fair and use of fairgrounds facilities

Experience or interest in civic groups, 4-H and FFA organizations, agri-business functions and communications with available media is helpful.”

For at least the last year, Expo Park staff has not attended fair board meetings.

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The board’s bylaws, as approved by County Commissioners in January 2015, state that the board “will work with, beside ExpoPark’s staff, public works and Board of County Commissioners. Members of the advisory board do not have the authority to direct the actions of ExpoPark’s staff.”

The bylaws also state that a board objective is to create “a conduit between the Board of County Commissioners/management and the facility users, community members and interested parties that allows for the acquisition and sharing of information unencumbered by status or authority.”

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In their email, Hall and Thompson told The Electric that the board “has been consistent in their efforts to be polite, understanding and receptive to alternative explanations and disagreements regarding the recommendations. The recommendations have always been for the betterment of ExpoPark and the Montana State Fair. ExpoPark is owned by the taxpayers of Cascade County and as such the ExpoPark Advisory Board is the conduit to the BCC. The ExpoPark Advisory Board is made up of volunteers from the community who have experience in many different professional and private entities.”

Hall and Thompson said the board was provided a job description with their duties and responsibilities and that on “many occasions, the BCC has tried to guide the ExpoPark Advisory Board away” from that role.

Hall and Thompson said that commissioners have said the board doesn’t need much of the information it has requested, such as financials, and that the board has attempted to manage ExpoPark staff.

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“We adamantly disagree with both of those assertions. As a result, the ExpoPark staff and BCC have restricted necessary information from the ExpoPark Advisory Board. The BCC have been less than transparent and honest with their responses and statements to the ExpoPark Advisory Board,” Hall and Thompson wrote to The Electric.

This year, the county released financials indicating that the fair generated $1,891,178 in revenue.

The fair board, and The Electric, requested expense figures for the fair.

On Sept. 17, Ryan sent an email to The Electric stating that the total fair expenses were $1,788,981 without details as to what those expenses entail. The fair board was provided financials that broke out revenues by concerts, gate admissions, horse racing, food vendors and the rodeo.

Ryan said the county is holding $75,000 of revenue in reserve for fair advertising next year.

“As we hope each year to break even each year, provide economic stimulus to Great Falls and provide entertainment to our citizens; we feel the fair was a success,” Ryan said.