Loudon County officials say costs too great for events complex

By Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

LOUDON — An ambitious proposal to build a multipurpose agricultural exposition and event complex in Loudon County — estimated to cost as much as $35 million — may have to be scaled back.

“With the school building program and the justice center, we have bigger nuts to crack right now,” said Commissioner Bob Franke, a member of the steering committee that has been exploring the “ag center” concept since last year.

With more than 2,000 students in the county enrolled in 4-H or similar programs, there is a need for some kind of facility where agriculture and livestock events can be held, Franke said.

According to a feasibility study released last month, the 35-acre complex would be used for horse shows, rodeos and western type events in addition to concerts, dog shows, livestock shows, consumer shows, auctions and events such as graduations.

“It’s something Loudon County desperately needs,” said John Goddard, University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension agent.

Under the plan recently revealed to county commissioners, the site would include an indoor arena with 150-foot by 250-foot ring and seating for 3,500 people with heating and air conditioning. Also proposed are covered and outdoor arenas, 6,000 square feet of multiple purpose space, 1,500 square feet of meeting/classroom space, 240 horse stalls, 75 RV camp sites and parking for up to 1, 500 vehicles.

A steering committee of several dozen members has been studying the proposal for at least six months. A feasibility study prepared by Knoxville-based Bullock Smith & Partners and Herndon, Va.-based Owens Economics estimated the cost to develop the facility at between $29.2 million and $35.3 million.

The multipurpose agricultural exposition center is projected to attract 242 events covering 293 event days annually. The main arena will account for 54 events, while the multipurpose space will account for 104 events, and the meeting/classroom space, 84 events. Total yearly attendance for these activities is estimated to be 190,600.

“There is demand for this kind of facility. All the similar facilities in surrounding counties are booked up more than a year in advance,” Goddard said.

The report cost $30,000, of which $20,000 came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and the rest from the county and city of Loudon.

The economic benefits from the facility would support local businesses, especially hotels, restaurants and retail/service outlets, and would generate significant tax revenues for Loudon County and the state of Tennessee, the report said.

Total on-site and off-site consumer expenditures should exceed $13 million per year. Loudon County tax receipts are estimated to be $134,400. The state should receive $395,000 in taxes.

The facility is expected to operate at a deficit at least for a time, the report said. At a stabilized level of operations, typically the third year, the annual deficit is estimated at $82,200. In subsequent years, the deficit should decline slightly as additional events are added in response to market growth, the report said. The report noted that the new tax revenues are some 60 percent greater than the operating shortfall.

“When you look at the numbers, it really doesn’t pay for itself,” Franke said.

Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron has been a supporter of the project. While she agrees an expenditure in the $30 million range is probably outside the county’s budget right now, Herron thinks the ability to solicit state and federal grants could help make the proposal a reality.

“We have to start looking at what grants are available and what we can afford. It’s going to be a couple years out,” she said.

Goddard said he hopes the county can find a benefactor to donate toward the facility. He believes the county should proceed with some sort of facility. The investment, even if scaled back considerably, would be a valuable addition to the education of children in the county through programs such as 4-H.

“We’re not just raising livestock, we’re raising children,” he said.