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Published August 10, 2009, 05:39 PM

Are times this tough? Some want the county out of the county fair

Times are so tough these days that some St. Louis County commissioners want to take the county out of the county fair.

Times are so tough these days that some St. Louis County commissioners want to take the county out of the county fair.

Commissioners plan to consider a proposal today so sell the South St. Louis County Fairground to the City of Proctor for $500. Another plan would offer the 80-acre site to the highest bidding private developer.

While county government and county fairs have been intertwined for more than a century in Minnesota, and 89 years in Proctor, state funding cuts to counties have spurred belt-tightening measures that have hit social services, sheriff’s departments and even road maintenance.

Some say the county can ill afford to be involved in an event with prize rabbits and stock-car races.

“Owning a fairground is not a core county service in my mind. It’s not something we need to be financially involved in,’’ said Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth.

There’s precedent for the move. The “north’’ St. Louis County Fair on the Iron Range moved from a county-owned site in Hibbing to a site in Chisholm in 1999 to make room for Hibbing community and technical colleges. The county now has no official role in the northern fair “and it seems to be working just fine—better than ever,’’ said Steve O’Neil, a commissioner representing eastern Duluth.

“I think the safeguards we have built in [to the proposed sale agreement with Proctor] would guarantee that the traditional fair aspects of the fairgrounds will continue. Nobody wants to see the fair end,’’ O’Neil said. “But at a time when we are cutting the budget and trying to prevent laying people off, this seems to make some sense.’’

The county has invested considerable dollars in the fair in recent years, upgrading arenas, bathrooms and other buildings. The cost is then paid back by the fair association after about 15,000 people attend the event each August. Other events include racing and horse and livestock events at other times of year.

Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Proctor wants the county to continue to own the fairgrounds. She says a small city like Proctor may not have the resources to make major improvements and repairs.

“Almost everything the county puts into the fair is paid back. The [fair association] is even a year ahead in their payments,’’ Sweeney said.

See tomorrow's print edition of the Duluth News Tribune for a more detailed version of this story.