A future home for the Teton County Fairgrounds could be up for debate as soon as January.
Town and county elected and appointed officials are ready to discuss whether there’s a better location for the fairgrounds, whether the space could be better used for housing, and how to preserve Jackson Hole’s “Western heritage.”
But with the conversation coming on the heels of planning for northern South Park, at least one official is worried that people won’t be ready for another major undertaking.
Still there could be some overlap between the wishes of housing-focused electeds and fair officials when it comes to the future of the fairgrounds.
Three members of the nine-person Teton County Fair Board, which has not taken a formal stance on the issue, spoke with the News&Guide on Tuesday afternoon. They cautiously said they were interested in discussing a new home for the fair, in part because of space constraints at the existing location.
But others, like Jackson Hole Rodeo arena director Phil Wilson, aren’t quite ready to see things change.
“I realized it’s got a huge value to it, as far as making it into housing for the county or city,” Wilson said of the 12-acre property. “But on the other hand, it’s another part of our history we’re destroying.”
The goal, as the town and county decided Monday, is to try to answer two questions in parallel.
One is whether the town and county will renew the lease for the fairgrounds, which is set to expire in 2026. That will likely queue up a conversation about where a relocated fairgrounds could go.
The other question is, if the two boards elect not to renew the lease, how to use the current fairgrounds’ location in the future. The space is owned by the town but leased by the county, and at least a few elected officials have their sights set on considering redeveloping the area for housing.
Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen, who is among those interested in the housing concept, said the conversation is “not a discussion about getting rid of the fair, or getting rid of the rodeo.”
“This is a discussion about where is the most appropriate location for these different uses,” he said. “There’s been many discussions about, ‘Is there a better, more effective, efficient location for the fair.’ Let’s have that discussion. Because it also gives us some opportunity ... for housing.”
One of the locations that’s been talked about in public meetings and was mentioned by the three Fair Board Members is the South Park area, which is directly south of town. But it’s unclear where it would go and whether landowners in the area would be willing to have the event center on their property. Nikki Gill and Kelly Lockhart did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
“That’s why we’re starting this discussion,” Jorgensen said, adding that he would not want to “presume” that either landowner would be interested in selling or otherwise making property available for the fair.
Town Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers pushed Monday to include the $400,000 planning effort for the area in the town and county’s joint work plan for the 2022 fiscal year, a plan that essentially outlines what projects the two government agencies will work on. She argued that starting to talk about the future of the fairgrounds in January would give the community time for the conversation before the fair’s current lease expires.
“Building housing at the current fairgrounds location seems to be the most responsible choice that’s in line with concentrating density in town,” she said in a text Tuesday morning. “It should be sensibly dense and very affordable, with as many deed restrictions as we can afford, while keeping in line with our Western character.”
Both boards agreed to spend the money on fairgrounds planning.
The Teton County Fair Board members said a change in location could spell opportunity, so long as the Teton County Fair is guaranteed a new home.
Land previously used by the fair to the south of Snow King Avenue has been taken over slowly with town and county buildings, they said. And the lease for the Exhibit Hall on the south side of the road is also set to expire sometime this year, with the town looking to develop housing there.
Fair Board Chair Matt Hall spoke for himself — not the board as a whole — and said that has him “more inclined” to think about a fairgrounds move.
“In general, I’ve thought about moving the fairgrounds so it provides a fuller facility for the events that used to come here but we cannot accommodate them, mainly because we don’t have RV hookups or enough parking,” Hall said.
Those events, Hall said, included the World Series of Team Roping and more. And, he thinks, the fair generally needs more space for things like a stall barn, more indoor and outdoor riding space, more parking, and an amphitheater for live music.
Fair Board members Mary Beth Hansen and Zack Vosika agreed.
“I believe that there is a better place for the fairgrounds, 100%,” Vosika said. “Do I believe it’s out in Wilson? Probably not. But I believe just on the outskirts of town somewhere would be extremely beneficial, especially for the equestrian parts of the fair.”
Hansen said getting trailers and such into the Snow King location can be a pain in the neck, particularly when she has to make the right-hand turn off of Broadway onto Flat Creek Drive. And she and Vosika talked about possibly incorporating the fairgrounds into some kind of multi-use community event center.
“I think our community needs one,” Hansen said. “We need an amphitheater for outdoor concerts. We need a community hall for wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs and whatever. We need that stuff.”
But some officials and people like Wilson are concerned.
Commissioners Mark Barron and Greg Epstein both voted against the work plan, objecting to including planning for the future of the fairgrounds in the package for the next year.
Barron took issue with the cost and worried about losing Jackson’s “Western heritage.”
“It’s not just two words, it’s real people, real parents, real riding, real horses, real children, actual 4-H,” he said. “And it’s huge in this community.”
He argued that the first question to be asked is whether the fairgrounds should move, rather than considering that question along with other uses on the property.
“My concern is if you don’t answer that, and the town continues down this path for planning housing, this community will find themselves without a rodeo and without fairgrounds and a stopper put in this Western heritage lifestyle that is alive and active,” he said.
Epstein likewise worried about putting too much on the community’s plate.
“We’re talking pretty big fundamental shifts in the community. The fairgrounds has been there forever, and I think there’s a lot of people that are very attached to it,” he said. “My thoughts were just let’s not shove too much down the throats of the public too quickly. Let’s let people digest some of these ideas.”
Wilson acknowledged that, in moving, there could be a benefit for the fair.
But he didn’t want to see the Jackson Hole Rodeo move.
“They can move it and make it work,” Wilson said. “But you can’t move history.”
“I believe that there is a better place for the fairgrounds, 100%. ... I believe just on the outskirts of town somewhere would be extremely beneficial ... ” — Zack Vosika Fair Board Member