Phased Improvements Suggested For Fairgrounds

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BCarolyn Newcomer KetchelCarolyn Newcomer Ketchel, Okaloosa County Commissioner, District 2

Background

The Okaloosa County Fairgrounds, located behind the Courthouse on Lewis Turner Boulevard, was originally owned and operated the City of Fort Walton Beach. In 2022, The Fort Walton Beach City Council declared it as surplus. Realizing that the land could be sold for real estate development, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners (BCC) entered into negotiations to purchase the valuable parcel of public land. The BCC realized that, in addition to annual events such as gun shows, the Okaloosa Fair, Antique shows and Fish Fries for All Sports, to name a few, the county will have a continuing need for a staging area when natural disasters, such as hurricanes, occur. This space would continue to be available to provide for power trucks and to house the National Guard. As a result of these discussions with the city, Okaloosa County agreed to purchase the Fairgrounds “as is” for $4.1 million with the understanding that the county would have greater resources to update and modernize the facilities, especially with access to Tourist Development dollars available through the bed tax on short-term rentals. The idea is to keep as much green space as possible for such a need.

Improvements

After the purchase of the property, there seemed to be broad consensus by the Okaloosa County BCC that the existing dilapidated structures need to be improved. A citizen committee was appointed, with one appointment by each commissioner, with the goal to develop specific recommendations for improvements to the Fairgrounds. Note: All improvements will be paid for from Tourism Development dollars. No money will be used from Ad Valorem tax dollars. The BCC will have the final vote on any improvements.

Committee Report

The Citizen Committee began meeting in September 2023, with an initial tour of the facilities. Deficiencies were noted. Event history was considered as well as possible future events after completion of much-needed improvements. I want to thank the Citizens Committee, who served without compensation, for their many selfless hours of work on this project.

The suggested plan to improve the current site would be implemented in phases. Detailed below are the specific improvements suggested by the Citizen Committee. Although there is a general consensus as to the vast majority of the suggested improvements, I have outlined below in red several significant additions. Because this is such an important capital project for the county that would affect all residents, I need your input specifically as to the major additions outlined in bold.

General Improvements Suggested:

• Demolish the oldest and most dilapidated buildings;
• Remove trash and debris throughout the site and cleanup overgrown vegetation;
• Remove the storage of unused and unnecessary equipment from the site;
• Relocate remaining storage items to outer remote buildings;
• Develop sections of paved and grass parking over time; and
• Work to ensure electricity and storm water issues are up to date and working.

Existing Building Space

• Ensure all roofs are weather tight with no leaks;
• Construct a new, attractive, uniform facade on outer existing buildings;
• Add new entrances at strategic points and demo existing entrances;
• Improve existing bathrooms;
• Add an 8-ft. covered walkway along the front of the existing buildings;
• Address parking needs and improve landscaping;
• Redo the 60-ft. area between Bldg. B and Bldg. C and the space between Bldg. D and Bldg. H by constructing a new addition that will include caterer’s kitchen and bathroom that could serve both buildings;
• Explore improving the internal lighting, wall and floor finishing, painting and similar cosmetic improvements for each space;
• Redevelop the functional event spaces with HVAC, insulation, floors, lighting and wall finishes; and
• Allow for longer corridor space into a more finished homogenous space capable of being used as one space or divided for each of the Building B, C, D and H.

Open Space Area Behind Buildings

• Eliminate safety holes in the open space area and remove antiquated infrastructure;
• Relocate current RV spaces elsewhere on site, perhaps to the periphery, and build new side with correct infrastructure, adjusting any necessary Eglin agreements;
• Build oversized bathroom for the field/outside use events;
• Reconstruct the area with new underground infrastructure that can be utilized when needed and hidden when not needed; and
• Add landscaping and turf to improve the overall appearance.

New Large Multi-Purpose Building

• Construct a new minimum 30,000-sq.-ft. building on the east side of the existing building with approximately 10,000-sq.-ft of additional support space, e.g. bathrooms, kitchen, storage, mechanical, etc.;
• Build other new or replacement sections and parking over time as demand is determined and funding permits, as shown in the conventional plan;
• Ensure the new building is modern and multi-purpose with technology, high ceilings, sprinklers, etc. with the ability to function alone or together with the other venue spaces as part of a bigger event;
• Build other wing in Phase V over time.
• Estimates of cost for these improvements are north of $10 million dollars.

Commission Decision:

The BCC approved Phase I of a comprehensive plan in March to refurbish the existing buildings with a new façade, kitchens and bathrooms. Other phases will be addressed as needed. The Fairgrounds are a wonderful county asset that will serve the community well for years to come: Emergency staging area when needed by power trucks and National Guard; Nice event venue—an alternative to expensive venues such as the Destin-FWB Conference Center on Okaloosa Island.

It is an honor and privilege to serve as your commissioner.

Carolyn Ketchel is Okaloosa County Commissioner, District 2.
She can be reached at CKetchel@myokaloosa.com or 850-651-7105.