Rarely has a public breakup been so amicable.
On Monday night, the city of Hermiston and Umatilla County voted to end their partnership that operates the Eastern Oregon Trade & Event Center (EOTEC). The votes taken Monday mean the city will be sole owner of the new facility perhaps as early as March 1, while the county will continue to honor its financial obligations over the next several years.
Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock, in a letter to the Hermiston City Council, outlined the county’s proposal and reasoning for it.
Murdock said it makes little sense for the county to be co-owner of a facility that primarily benefits the Hermiston area.
“The county has its exceptional new fairgrounds, but during the other 11-plus months a year, the spotlight is on drawing events to the Greater Hermiston area,” he wrote. “The primary benefit of spawning this activity serves the economy of the Hermiston area. As the future of EOTEC unfolds, the city of Hermiston will be far more interested in future investments at EOTEC than the county will be.”
The city, for its part, would like more control over the facility. So, on Monday during a joint meeting of the Hermiston City Council and the county commissioners at EOTEC, both entities voted to end the intergovernmental agreement, dissolving their 50-50 ownership of EOTEC.
The county, however, is not pulling back from its financial obligations. It will pay $595,000 to help offset the cost of fully equipping EOTEC and providing adequate storage. The county will also pay $105,000 for construction overruns, as well as $85,175 this year and $75,399 next year for initial contract shortfalls and an additional $75,000 for facility operations for the next five years.
In addition, the county fair will now pay $100,000 to rent the facility during the fair, up from the previous $10,000 rent price. Murdock said that wasfair considering the county will no longer be co-owner and will not have the same level of liability.
The county will also transfer parts of Airport and Ott Roads to the city, although there may be some sticking points as to how much of the roads are transferred. The city wants just those portions that front the EOTEC property, while the county would prefer to transfer all of the roads to the city. Both roads would need significant improvements to handle the traffic on those roads during fair and rodeo week. Hermiston City Manager Byron Smith acknowledged the city has $1.1 million from the state Legislature for road work, but said that amount isn’t enough to make the needed improvements.
Smith said EOTEC would likely be overseen by an advisory committee that answers to the city council.
Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann said he was thankful for the county’s partnership over the years and appreciated the fact that the county was keeping its end of the bargain.
“You guys have been great partners,” he said. “But this allows us to have more control over EOTEC. This is a win for both the city and the county.”
Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens agreed.
“This gives the city assurity with the facility beyond the fair week,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”
Several other audience members expressed support for the city taking sole ownership.
George Anderson, who provided legal assistance to EOTEC at no cost, said this move should not make the community nervous.
“People should not have their knees knocking together about the future of EOTEC,” he said. “I’m proud of everyone in this room for doing this. You’ve built a $17 million facility without bonded debt. You’ve built it. Everyone built it.”
Referencing Star Trek, Anderson said the EOTEC partners “have gone where no one has gone before. And when you get there, it’s not always what you expected and sometimes you have to change and that’s what the county is proposing tonight.”
Drotzmann said the Hermiston community has never backed away from a challenge.
“This is an opportunity for Hermiston, who ultimately has the most benefit,” he said. “Our part of the county will benefit most from people coming to EOTEC.”
The city did get a somber message, however, from Nate Rivera, former interim general manager at EOTEC.
“The biggest challenge to the city is to define success,” he said. “There is no one definition of success. Everyone has their own vision. What does success look like? Is it a facility that is subsidized or one that stands on its own.
“You guys just bought a big boat,” he added. “It’s fun to have, but it can get really expensive.”
Rivera said public outreach will be critical to determine the long-term vision for the facility.