Ag complex in limbo as officials consider substitute

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

While the idea to build a $30 million self-sustaining, multipurpose agricultural complex may be too lofty a goal at the moment, given Loudon County's other commitments to address school construction needs and jail overcrowding, officials are now retooling plans that may include a smaller, open-air horse arena.

"We're definitely going to go on with something," John Goddard, University of Tennessee extension agent, said. "It'll probably be a scaled down version of what the feasibility study showed."

Representatives with Knoxville-based Bullock Smith & Partners and Owens Economics presented a report to Loudon County Commission last month that highlighted some of the potential economic benefits of a multipurpose facility, along with the number of visitors that type of complex could attract.

According to the report, a facility housed on 35 acres would cost between $29 million and $35 million. Two sites under consideration, Loudon Municipal Park and Centre 75 Business Park, only provided about 25 acres.

Estimates from the report showed the facility would generate about $13 million in consumer spending per year, which amounts to $134,400 in local tax revenue and $395,000 in state taxes. Once the facility became financially "stabilized" in its third year, it would operate at a deficit of $82,200.

David Brashears, who has stepped down as head of the agricultural complex executive committee, said he thought a multipurpose building is still a possibility with a collaborative effort. He said proponents of the complex realized at the beginning of the process that the county was facing other funding challenges.

"I really believe that if you had a gifting organization, if you get enough support behind it with private, public (funds), I'm not necessarily just talking county funds or city funds, I'm talking about state funds, and you could pull all those entities together, I think it could happen," Brashears said. "Maybe I'm too optimistic."

Officials with the agricultural complex committee may now consider a 170-by-250 foot horse rink that could be housed at Loudon Municipal Park.

"Everybody's got some different ideas," Goddard said about the possibility of an agricultural complex. "It's not just going to be my idea. We're all going to pitch in just kind of like we did on this one to see what's workable. It's not dead by any means. It's probably hotter than it ever has been."

He said a larger facility that was the subject of the report may still be in the county's future.

"That's probably something we may be looking at five or six or 10 years down the road, but we need something that we can utilize now to kind of help the kids out and some other folks as well," Goddard said.

Loudon County Commissioner Bob Franke, who serves on the agricultural complex advisory committee, said the capital expenses required for a widescale complex was a prohibiting factor in going forward at the moment.

"There's so much up front money that you've got to spend that right now is not a really good time I don't think, even though I'm very supportive of it," Franke said. "I think it's a wonderful idea, and we have a great 4-H program in Loudon County."

He noted that more than 2,000 county students are involved in 4-H and could utilize such a complex.
"I wish we could supply an adequate facility for them right now so they don't have to go around in different spots all the time to try to find an adequate place, but dollars and cents wise, I just don't see how we could do it right now," Franke said.

Commissioner Don Miller said the key going forward was for agricultural complex supporters to identify some private sources of funding to start the project, noting that he was OK with providing $6,000 in county money to complete the feasibility study. The $30,000 study was funded through a $20,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, along with $4,000 from the city of Loudon and remainder coming from Loudon County.

"The operating cost deficiency was not the big number," Miller said. "Even if they can find capital costs, I don't see the county being able to financially afford putting money into this project, and we said that right at the very beginning six months ago or so when they came to us and asked if we would provide some seed money, and I had no problem providing the seed money."

Brashears said the horse rink now under consideration could cost $400,000 just in materials and did not include construction costs.

"It's going to be expensive," Brashears said. "It's not going to be cheap. You've got to put utilities (in) and scratch out a place for it and clean it up and take the topsoil off and put parking in and roads. By the time you figure all that, (we) don't have an idea" about the final costs.

He said during a follow-up interview that some 4-H events currently take place at Valley Farmers Co-op in Loudon, while for others, students have to travel to McMinn County.

"There's just really not anywhere in the county to even do something like that," Brashears said. "That's sort of the driving force to at least get something temporary if possible."

Franke said he thought a horse arena may be more feasible at the moment as long as an appropriate location is selected.

"It might be depending on the cost of it and so on," Franke said. "That might be a little bit more palatable, but here again, you want to find a place. You don't want to just stick it somewhere and then say, 'OK, when we get ready to build something we'll go some place else.' I think we really need to look at the location and make sure that we do it in the right place to begin with."