The city of Hermiston will become the sole owner of the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center on March 1 — if everything goes according to plan.
The city council and Umatilla County Commission each voted unanimously on Monday night to negotiate a dissolution of the original intergovernmental agreement that formed EOTEC as a 50/50 partnership in 2013 and transfer full ownership to the city.
“This is a little scary, but this community has never backed down from a challenge,” Mayor David Drotzmann said.
Under a proposal presented by Commissioner George Murdock, the city would take full ownership of and liability for EOTEC on March 1, in addition to taking on Ott Road and Airport Road that surround EOTEC. While the city would immediately be on the hook for any unanticipated costs such as a major maintenance problem, the county would honor several commitments it has already made to the facility.
The county would continue paying $75,000 toward operations for five more years. It would also pay an additional $85,175 in 2018 and $75,399 in 2019 based on an earlier prediction by VenuWorks of cost overruns in the first two years. The county would also pay its $105,000 portion of the final overrun on EOTEC’s construction budget.
VenuWorks has also created a list of equipment, storage and other things needed to run EOTEC year-round. Under Murdock’s proposal, the county would still pay $595,000 for its half of that outlay. The Umatilla County Fair would also agree to increase its lease payment from $10,000 per year to $100,000 per year. The county plans to make those payments using the $500,000 it will receive annually from Lamb Weston’s enterprise zone tax payment.
The city would be expected to agree to build a storage facility, office space and conference room somewhere on EOTEC property for use by the fair. There are not currently enough offices in EOTEC’s event center for all VenuWorks and fair staff, and the fair has been storing items in shipping containers on the property.
City manager Byron Smith said he envisioned an EOTEC board that would act as an advisory committee to the city council, which would be the governing board.
Drotzmann said that while transferring ownership to the city may sound like the county was giving up and walking away, he was thankful that the county was willing to make investments that it had already agreed to.
“The county acknowledges their responsibility, they own up to it,” he said. “They don’t just want to drop this on the city of Hermiston.”
Murdock said he drafted the proposal the way he did because he recognized that the city wanted more control of EOTEC’s destiny, but the county also wanted to see EOTEC succeed and felt there was a moral and ethical obligation to see certain things through.
“This agreement creates budget certainty for the county and a location for the fair and rodeo, but also relieves the county of many of the burdens of day to day operations,” he said.
Councilor John Kirwan pointed out that he had questioned before whether the city council should take the EOTEC board’s place and it seemed like a good time to make the transition. He said it was obvious everyone in the crowded room wanted EOTEC to succeed, and a lot of good work had gone into making the project happen, but “if we don’t change how we’re doing it the results are not going to be good for anybody in this room.”
The city and county signed their agreement creating EOTEC in 2013, but the two entities were working on the project long before that. The city of Hermiston donated the 90 acres where the project is located, and in April 2012 the county commission voted to sell the former Umatilla County fairgrounds to the Hermiston School District for $3 million, which was then used as seed money for EOTEC.
The votes taken by both governing bodies on Monday did not dissolve the intergovernmental agreement yet, but rather directed negotiations to begin dissolving the agreement by March 1. While Murdock’s proposal seemed supported overall, there were sticking points. The city council only wants to take the portions of Ott Road and Airport Road bordering EOTEC, for example, while the county commission expressed a hope the council would consider taking all of it. There is $1.1 million set aside in the legislature’s 2017 transportation package to improve Ott and Airport, but Smith said it would take more than that to improve them to the standard needed to handle traffic during fair week.
While Drotzmann assured the audience there would be more time for public comment than just Monday’s meeting, neighbor Chris Waine said he did not believe six weeks was enough time for the proposal to be vetted by the community. He also questioned, as a county taxpayer, whether the county was walking away from a huge investment before it had a chance to get a return on that investment.
When asked his opinion on the proposal, former interim EOTEC general manager Nate Rivera said part of the problem with EOTEC’s lack of longterm vision has been that so many people involved in the project disagree on what the definition of a successful EOTEC is — one that hosts the best fair and rodeo possible, one that is profitable, or something else. He said they needed to decide on that definition, and to realize that their definition might not match that of donors and volunteers who had contributed.
Commissioner and EOTEC board member Larry Givens said it was “pretty tough” for him to take the vote after so much involvement in EOTEC, but he thought overall it was “one of the best moves we can make.”
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.