News Column

Expo center further behind on bills

July 1, 2014

By Katie Wedell, Dayton Daily News, Ohio

July 01--Weather-related cancellations and high natural gas bills put the Champions Center further into a financial hole this winter as the expo center continues to pay down a hefty property tax bill.

The center hasn't made any payments on a taxpayer-funded loan from the Port Authority of Springfield in almost a year, and is several months behind on its payments for campground fees to the fairgrounds, officials with both organizations said.

The harsh winter weather -- which in total cost the center more than $127,000 -- has contributed to its financial problems, said Ohio Equine Agricultural Association President Fred Maine.

"Every show lost money from what it did the year before," he said.

The OEAA has a history of financial woes, starting in 2009 when it was discovered the nonprofit had been denied tax-exempt status due to a paperwork error and owed more than $684,000 in taxes dating back to 2004.

The association, which operates the expo center at the Clark County Fairgrounds on Laybourne Road, is currently behind on numerous bills, despite a full schedule of summer events.

The campsite fees are an issue that is being worked out, according to fair board Executive Director Allan Hess. But as of last week the OEAA owed the board somewhere between $17,000 and $26,000.

"It's not a big deal," Hess said. "It's something the fair board and the Champions Center are trying to work out."

The board will get it's money, Maine said, and the amount currently owed pales in comparison to the sum the center has paid over the past decade.

"The money that we have saved the fair board in tents alone is incredible," Maine said. "This facility has paid the fair board, in camping fees and building rental fees, well over $300,000 since we've been here."

When the property tax bill was discovered, the port authority stepped in with a $70,000 taxpayer-funded loan. After four years the OEAA still owes about $60,650 including interest, according to port authority Chairman Jim Foreman.

The port authority was created in 2009 and received $1.5 million from the Ohio Department of Economic Development. The initial mission was to finance major economic development and infrastructure projects in Springfield. It has also contributed to community projects such as the new ice arena, whitewater features on Buck Creek and a statue of boxer Davey Moore.

The money OEAA borrowed from the port authority was supposed to be paid back by December 2011. When that debt hadn't been paid by late 2012, the two groups worked out a new payment plan.

The most recent payment was received on July 16, 2013, and the port authority has sent four invoices since then, Foreman said.

"Their communicative about it, they just can't pay," he said.

The port authority hasn't pushed the matter too much, Foreman said, because the board members believe the Champions Center is an asset for the region and brings in large events that benefit the region's tourism industry.

"We bring thousands of people into this community. The money that the (Clark County Convention Facilities Authority) has collected and spent throughout this community, a large amount of that money has been derived from people coming to this facility," Maine said.

The reason the center is currently struggling to pay its bills, he said, is because of the extraordinarily cold winter. Heating costs for the facility were $58,000 more than normal.

"We have to heat this entire facility with natural gas, and this place eats us alive," Maine said.

The center wanted to have a geothermal heating system, but federal grant money to install the system fell through. The plan now is to replace the gas system with radiant heat, Maine said.

"That would cut our heat bill by at least 50 percent," he said.

The OEAA has been steadily paying down its delinquent taxes under a contract with the Clark County Auditor's office. The association is now properly classified as a nonprofit and is therefore tax exempt going forward.

According to auditor's records, the association made its most recent payment of $37,588 on March 12 and will have the remaining $112,764 balance paid off by next year with payments this month, and next February and July.

"The property tax has been the biggest drain," Maine said. "But no matter what, we're going to pay the property tax."

The Clark County commissioner's questioned Hess at a June meeting about how much was owed to the county, but Commissioner Rick Lohnes said they've been assured the center is recovering financially.

"They're paying (the property taxes) back and then they're going to be in good shape," Lohnes said


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Source: Dayton Daily News (OH)

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