Agri-Business Center board joins city/county planning effort

Members of the Agri-Business Center board of directors met with representatives of the Oneonta City Council and Blount County Commission last week for an update on results of the first joint city/county planning discussion on the institutional future of the Blount County Oneonta Agri-Business Center. That initial meeting was held Dec. 10.

Following the Friday briefing, the board was asked to respond to the content, then discuss the informal consensus from the first meeting, and to take action to affirm and join it or to deny and withhold endorsement – or endorse it with changes – as they saw fit.

The eight members of the board present in effect affirmed the consensus and took action to join it by passing the following motions by unanimous vote. Approved were:

(1) a motion to deed 1.4 acres owned by the board to the city and county by whatever legal means are recommended by their attorneys so that it can be included in the 7.8 acres already a part of Agri-Business Center property.

(2) a motion to accept the City of Oneonta’s offer of a city employee to be assigned to the Agri-Business Center to work as a temporary manager for event preparation for a period of time not specified in the motion, but discussed as being from a few to several months, subject to decision at a later time.

(3) a motion to appoint a six-member advisory board to conduct a four-month study culminating in recommendations on a plan for how to position the Agri-Business Center for the near and longer-term future with respect to event selection and the physical facilities necessary to accommodate them. The board would consist of two members appointed by the city, two members appointed by the county, one at-large member, and Jeff Hallmark, current president of the Agri-Business Center board, as the sixth member.

Not included in the motion, but featured prominently in discussion of the role of the advisory board or task force, was the need to recommend a plan which would accommodate the needs of both sides in the debate over the predominant function of the Agri-Business Center going forward.

The county wants to keep many, if not most, of the events currently scheduled, many of which have an agricultural theme to a greater or lesser extent. The city wants to use the property to develop a youth sports complex to serve the entire county. Discussion centered on the difficulty of harmonizing those two interests, with frequent comments emphasizing that, “There’s gotta be a lot of give and take on all sides.”

The board passed one additional motion to consolidate its four bank accounts into two accounts, one general account and one savings account. The action was seemingly unrelated to the main purpose of the meeting.

The current Agri-Business Center board would remain in place until the recommendation is made by the advisory board and accepted for implementation by the city and county as they assume full financial responsibility for the Agri-Business Center, at which time the present board would phase itself out.

The city/county decision-making exercise that began Dec. 10 was triggered by the report earlier this year from an ag expo consultant (Tourism Skills Group of Atlanta), hired by the city and county as joint owners of the facility, to identify options in its future operation. The three basic options identified were (1) demolish the center and repurpose the property – $100,000 plus cost of repurposing, (2) renovate and upgrade the facility incorporating new technology – $3 million to $10 million, and (3) rebuild an entirely up-to-date, multi-use center of similar size – $3 million to $30 million.

The report stated that existing exposition centers around the country “are not profit makers.”