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Officials proposed a $44 million expansion at the Lancaster Event Center that would add new buildings, more parking and camping spaces and upgrade existing buildings in the hopes of attracting more and larger events.

The plan likely would require a property tax increase, and there are no plans to ask taxpayers to vote on the proposal, Lancaster County Agricultural Society officials said in unveiling the plan at the County Board meeting Thursday.

The board has to approve the plan.

A new agricultural coliseum, which could host rodeos, horse shows and a variety of trade shows, would have 2,500-2,800 permanent seats and include concessions, offices and meeting rooms.

The project also would add another multipurpose pavilion building, relocate and expand a campground to include showers and restrooms, pave six new parking lots and create an area for a privately developed hotel, restaurant and retail.

The ag society also wants to upgrade existing buildings with better lighting and utilities.

The proposal would complete the third and final phase in the event center's 1999 master plan.

In 2001, the $12 million center opened with a multi-purpose arena, offices and two pavilions. In 2009, another pavilion and a 125,000-square-foot arena was added.

This final addition would add 200,000 square feet of space and help lure larger events to Lincoln, said Ron Snover, director of the event center.

"The addition will allow us to meet the needs of regional and national shows that stay longer, use more space and generate more revenue," Snover told the County Board. "By increasing our stabling capacity from 800 to 1,200 horses and providing a show arena for spectators, we can attract national rodeos and breed shows that we can't get today."

Because it didn't have the necessary amenities, the event center had to turn away or was turned down by more than 25 events in the past few years, including the Antique Road Show, indoor monster truck shows, national tractor pulls, International Professional Rodeo Association events, National High School Rodeo events and large horse shows.

Common requests that can't be met are an on-site hotel, paved parking stalls, concrete floor in the arena, permanent seating, enough horse stalls and air conditioning.

An expansion would allow the center to host larger agricultural shows, as well.

The Nebraska Power Farming Show, held in December, already is the third largest indoor farm show in the country, drawing people from 42 states, but show organizer Andrew Goodman said he believes it could grow by as much as 50 percent.

That would make it the second-largest show in the country.

Officials said it's the right time for the expansion, because a growing farm economy means more interest in ag shows and events. Plus, they can capitalize on low-interest rate bonds.

They also have a proven record of high attendance -- event and attendance numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.

In 2011, they had 209 events with 558,765 people attending.

In 2007, before their second expansion, they saw only 120 events and 245,670 attendees.

The County Board will likely vote on the project in July. If it were approved, construction could be complete by late 2014.

Ameritas, the city's financial adviser, laid out a worst-case scenario if the expansion were completed: If private developers didn't build a hotel and the event center didn't bring in any new events, the expansion would require a property tax increase of about $14 for a $100,000 home.

Creighton University professor of economics Ernie Goss looked at potentially rosier impacts.

If the event center drew 120 new events and didn't get a hotel on the grounds, property taxes would increase about $7.30 annually for a $100,000 home.

The best scenario, Goss said, would be an additional 120 events and a hotel on the grounds, which would generate tax revenue and potentially provide for a slight decrease in property taxes.

Officials said they are optimistic that hotel chains would be interested in the area and the center could draw 120 new events.

Residents don't have to vote on issuing the bonds to pay for improvements because the Lancaster County Fairgrounds Joint Public Agency -- made up of the County Board and the Ag Society -- has bonding authority.

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Lancaster County residents still are helping pay off an $8.1 million bond from initial event center construction and expansion.

Goss said the project could have a significant impact on the local economy, job market and tax revenue.

"The event center is an important contributor to Nebraska's biggest growth engine -- agriculture," Goss said. "With borrowing costs at an all-time low and the potential for attracting large regional events, this is an optimal time to implement plans for the next phase of development."

The costs include $25 million for the buildings; $10 million for parking, landscaping and campgrounds; $3 million for furnishings and equipment; $900,000 for existing building upgrades and $1.5 million for utilities and other expenses. A $3 million contingency fund also is built into the package.

County commissioners seemed generally enthusiastic toward the idea.

Larry Hudkins and Bernie Heier were around for the controversial decision to build the center in 2001 and said they took a lot of heat, because residents didn't think the space would be used.

"Everyone thought we were dumb," Heier said. "But it's worked out great."

Brent Smoyer and Jane Raybould were more conservative in their assessment, asking if they could phase the project in more slowly.

"I like the idea, and it comes at a time with great interest rates, but at the same time it tacks on tax to property when families are struggling," Smoyer said, also noting the county's budget problems. "There are just so many moving parts.

"I'm hesitant despite this phenomenal vision."

Chairwoman Deb Schorr will not vote on the project because the law firm her husband works for is involved in the project.

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​Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, or follow him @LJSPascale.


County/City reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star

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