The search for a contractor to build a new exhibition hall and grandstand at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds is on hold, pending a ruling by a state District Court judge.
Meanwhile, a historic preservation group has named the one-mile horseracing track at the fairgrounds to its list of Montana’s most endangered historic places.
Save the Track Foundation Inc., a local group suing the county commission and county administrator over planned changes at the fairgrounds, is asking District Court Judge Thomas Honzel to halt any work that would disturb the racetrack until after the trial, set for September 2007.
“If a preliminary injunction is not entered, the interests of (the foundation) … will be irreparably harmed and any future judgment likely will be meaningless,” Missoula attorney Jack Tuholske wrote in a motion filed on Save the Track’s behalf.
County Administrator Ron Alles said the search for a contractor to build the $4.5 million facility has been halted until the judge rules on the foundation’s motion. A hearing is set for Sept. 26.
If work is allowed to proceed, the county wants the building available for use by 2008, Alles said.
In its lawsuit, the foundation alleges the county violated open meeting and antiquities laws and misled voters, who approved a levy to raise $5.7 million for improvements at the fairgrounds. It is asking the court to force the county to change its plan and leave the racetrack, West Barn and Paddock Building as is.
The county’s plan to build the exhibition hall, arena and a parking lot in the track’s infield prompted the foundation’s forming. It is composed of horseracing enthusiasts, historic preservation advocates and farmers, foundation president Rhonda Strainer said Wednesday. It also caused concern at the Montana Preservation Alliance, which named the track to its list of six historic sites across the state it considers endangered. The alliance is a statewide, nonprofit organization.
The plan would make the 136-year-old oval unusable, Strainer said. Lewis and Clark County commissioners have said the track’s backstretch and two curves will be open for racing. The plan calls for a portion of the homestretch to be paved.
Strainer said leaving the backstretch and curves open for racing isn’t useful because a complete oval is needed. She said groups in charge of holding races in the past were profitable and added that she possesses a lease document from the mid-1980s that shows a group paid the county $33,000 for use of the facility.
Alles said two groups formerly in charge of horseracing, Last Chance Racing and Queen City Racing, went bankrupt. He challenges the foundation to provide evidence showing horseracing is profitable.
“I’m not sure why we’re so unique here, why we’re making money, supposedly, and we’ve got racetracks across Montana that have closed or are talking about closing,” he said.
Strainer said the county misled voters with “propaganda” distributed before the 2004 levy vote. Pamphlets showed the racetrack intact, she said.
“I disagree with that,” Alles said. “We had an architect’s rendering of what could take place down there. Since then we’ve had a lengthy, well-thought-out process. … That was just a rendering that didn’t have the planning behind it.”
He said the exhibition hall and rodeo arena, which would be moved northwest of its current location, need to be located at the infield for three reasons:
- It would improve parking and traffic flow from the Silsbee Street entrance.
- The building’s placement makes sense when considering developments at the fairgrounds in coming years.
- The location allows the county to move forward with construction without moving or destroying any buildings or postponing any events.
A state district judge last year denied an injunction requested by Save the Track to halt the construction of an access road at the racetrack.
Montana Preservation Alliance Executive Director Chere Jiusto said the group named the track to its list of most endangered historic places because it believes the county can come up with a better plan.
“Our hope is that by calling attention through the list … we come up with better solutions,” she said.
County Commission Chair Anita Varone said the endangered status is “a matter of opinion” and Commissioner Ed Tinsley called it “disingenuous.”
Tinsley said the fairgrounds plan incorporates the track’s footprint, and visitors to the facility will easily be able to see it is home to a historic racetrack. He said the track doesn’t need to be used for horseracing in order to be preserved.
“You can save a historic brothel, but you’re not going to run it as a brothel,” Tinsley said.
Varone said the foundation has failed to come up with a business plan for horseracing at the track, and noted the mill levy contained no money for racing.
The track was constructed in 1870. Racing halted in 1999. According to the American Racing Manual, Jiusto said, the track is the second oldest of its kind in the country.
She said preserving and maintaining the racetrack could enable the county to secure additional funding for its fairground improvements.
Alles disagreed. He said grant funding resources have become scarcer and harder to secure.
Visit reporter Larry Kline’s new IR blog, inKlined, at www.helenair.com/blog/inklined/ to read more and comment about the racetrack.