The Delaware County Agricultural Society has a plan to turn the county fairgrounds into one of central Ohio's leading venues for special events.

Construction of a new Junior Fair-Agriculture Center building will be one of the first steps in the effort that could take 15 years to complete, with a number of new structures planned.

The goal is to turn the fairgrounds into "a premier fairground and entertainment destination" in the state, county commissioner Jeff Benton said during the Feb. 25 state-of-the-county event, held at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

"The Little Brown Jug (harness race) brings attention to the fairgrounds every September," Benton said, "but our plans for the future will bring attention to the entire fairgrounds all year."

"We'd like to make (the fairgrounds) one of the main central hubs for Delaware County -- a gathering place," said fair board president Tom Wright.

As such, he said, the fairgrounds will be able to accommodate a wide variety of entertainment and agriculture-related uses, he said. They could range from a meeting of 10 people to a wedding attended by 300 or a horse sale attended by 2,000.

For many years, the fairgrounds has been the site of a number of events held when the county fair isn't underway.

Increasing that business and generating more revenue for the agricultural society -- which manages the county fair and fairgrounds -- is a big part of the overall strategy, Benton said.

The planned fairground improvements, he said, will be a magnet for large and small groups looking for an ideal venue.

"I don't foresee any financial obligation on the county's part" in connection with the projects, Benton said.

Instead, the work will be funded by the county's 3% tax on hotel bills, approved by county voters in 2016 and scheduled to run for five years.

"The voters recognized many visitors use the fairgrounds, and the hotel tax provides funds for much-needed improvements," Benton said. "The renovations will create the type of fairgrounds we feel the residents want."

It's been estimated the hotel tax will raise about $9 million during its lifetime, Benton said. Funding will be needed after the tax expires, he said, but it's too early to say if the tax will return to the ballot for renewal.

Wright said the projects will be completed in three phases, with each phase taking 36 to 48 months to complete. Some projects will be constructed concurrently.

"Completion of all phases may take the full 15 years, but we are hoping for less time," he said.

Construction in the first phase, he said, will include the Junior Fair-Agriculture Center, two new barns for harness-racing horses and a covered equine show-competition arena.

Also planned are upgrades to the grandstand and paving of some roads.

The Agriculture Center building is expected to cost about $5 million, with construction to start this year, he said.

It's too early to have firm cost estimates and timetables for the other projects, he said. Market conditions in the construction industry, for example, can significantly affect a building's cost, he said.

That's already happened to an extent regarding the new Agriculture Center, he said. Its construction cost estimates have increased since the project was conceived, and the agricultural society had to scrap plans for an elevator -- to reach offices on an upper floor -- to keep costs at $5 million, he said.

The Agriculture Center will cover about 24,000 square feet. It will replace the former Junior Fair building, which had about 9,600 square feet.

Bids will be sought for two separate phases: preparing the site first, followed by construction. Wright said it's hoped the building can be partially completed so part of it can be used during the 2020 county fair.

B&K Lehner Excavating, Delaware, removed the old building. Harper Architectural Studio, Westerville, is designing the new building.

"When complete, the ag center will house the fairgrounds office, the Agricultural Hall of Fame and a large open area for 4-H, as well as events throughout the year," Wright said. "The current fairground office building and Agricultural Hall of Fame will be razed."

The new center will be equipped for year-round use as a rental venue, Wright said.

The fairgrounds' harness-racing barns are in use for most of the year, housing horses and providing training access to the fairgrounds' track, he said.

The two new harness-racing barns in the first phase will be followed by two more in the second phase, he said.

Each barn will have about 50 horse stalls, plus washing stalls, offices and internal hallways. Most harness-racing barns will be razed.

A barn earlier built by Clyde Perfect and donated to the agricultural society will remain, Wright said, as will the Jug and Jugette barns. When barn construction is complete, he said, the fairgrounds will have the capacity to house about 230 harness-racing horses, with 60 more stalls available in the Jug and Jugette barns if needed.

The equine arena will be on the fairgrounds' west side, in the area where saddle-club events are held during the fair.

The new structure will be covered for three-season use and enclosed later for four-season use.

Its dimensions will be 150 by 300 feet -- large enough to house any variety of equine or other animal-related events, Wright said.

The arena eventually will be adjacent to four new barns with about 40 stalls each available for horse or livestock. Wright said those barns will be built during the second phase.

Beneath the race track's grandstand is space that's been used as a restaurant and concession stand during the county fair. Wright said that space will be renovated -- including ventilation, new siding, new restrooms and updated electrical wiring -- to allow year-round use and enhance patrons' experience.

"The goal is to make it more usable than one week a year," he said.

Also planned is improved Americans with Disabilities Act compliance for the upper grandstand, which Wright described as some method of getting disabled patrons to the seating area.

Other projects in the second phase will include camping improvements, road paving, a new maintenance facility and a hospitality structure, Wright said.

The third phase will include upgrades to the fairgrounds' Coliseum, Merchants Building and Arts and Crafts Building, some new agricultural buildings, a new show/sale arena, total grounds fencing, a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk, an enclosure of the covered equine arena, tree planting and an expansion of the midway, he said.

The Coliseum is a landmark, Wright said.

"It's been part of the fairgrounds since it opened in the late '30s or '40s," he said. "If it's done right, it'll be a beautiful building upgrade. We'll put some love and care back into it."

The building will receive heating, new doors, a new roof, new siding and new restrooms, he said. Restrooms will be upgraded at multiple spots around the fairgrounds to improve ADA compliance, he said.

The Merchants Building will receive upgrades similar to the Coliseum but will require less work by comparison, Wright said.

The Arts and Crafts Building will see a new roof and new siding, he said, plus some improvements to stormwater drainage.

Also slated for replacement are several of the fairgrounds' open-air barns, Wright said.

"Some of them are in bad shape, and we wouldn't get a good return if we invest money in them," he said.

Buildings fronting Pennsylvania Avenue, including some newer livestock and competition structures, will remain in place, he said.

Benton said the overall project includes other incidental work, such as paving and improvements to water lines and electrical systems.

"The agricultural society wants to do it right and carefully," he said.

"That's what the hotel-tax money is for and it's what our businesses and residents want."

editorial@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNews