EDITORIAL: From ruins could come strength for Malheur County fairgrounds

At the Malheur Count Fairgrounds, a jumble of siding, roofing and lumber is evidence of the power of the snow load. Fair supporters are raising money to help rebuild after the collapse of Girvin Hall

Tents and towed-in bathrooms will have to do this year to make up for buildings lost to snow at the Malheur County Fairgrounds. That temporary fix relieves the urgency to decide right now what to rebuild, and gives the community more time to consider the fairground’s future.

Winter took a terrible toll there. Gavin Hall is gone. Sheep barns are gone, and now comes word that the horse barns have been condemned. Thankfully, fair officials were prudent with insurance coverage and taxpayers can expect a substantial check to help cover the losses. But how to spend that check?

At more than 100 years old, the Malheur County Fair has been a part of thousands of lives. There is something uplifting about watching fresh-faced farm kids carefully grooming a sheep or goat or cow. Who hasn’t sat for a moment on a bench during fair, taking a breather, watching the passing crowd, saying “howdy” to folks seen only during fair time? And who doesn’t feel a tight link to our agricultural roots while strolling past exhibits competing for ribbons for the best canned vegetable?

But the fair is a year-round business, and winter’s destruction opens the door for an honest appraisal of that business. A group of local residents did that not too long ago, mulling what to do about the damage.

The easiest choice is to just replace what was there and move on. This is the status quo path. This doesn’t consider whether what was there before is what’s best now. Simple replacement means simply doing what’s always been done, with these buildings largely empty much of the year save for money made from RV storage.

That group meeting last February thought much larger. It considered using the insurance pot to build one large arena and event center. Several people said such a center could draw a stream of shows, from dog shows to cutting competition and more. Several regional arenas on the Idaho side of the river went down too, and that might create opportunity here in Malheur County.

Thinking big doesn’t hurt. Having ambition to do more, do better is good. The caution, though, is that putting up a big building is one matter. Running it year after year is another. Too many public and private event venues get put up with enthusiasm and too little business sense. Soon, the buildings are costing more to staff, clean and market than they take in from rentals. That can’t happen here, not at the fairgrounds.

Deciding what kind of building to put up really ought to be the second question. The first question is: What is the demand for different events? We need to catalog the customers who would willingly pay to rent space. We need to think creatively about what other uses are there for fairgrounds land that could be put to profitable use. Once it’s clear who are the customers and their needs, planners can design a new fairground building – more than one, if necessary – that fills that need.

This is no different than a grocery chain evaluating whether to build in a new town. You can be sure Winco was highly confident customers would show up if it opened doors in Ontario. They didn’t spend millions on a new building based on hope. Let’s take the time to dream a little but also be sure we have sharp pencils and a sensible business plan. Done right, this winter’s disaster could stimulate a smart and lasting renewal at the fairgrounds. – LZ