Umatilla County Fair Day One

The sun sets over the carnival at the Umatilla County Fair in 2019. The potential sale of the Hermiston Community Center could push more local events onto EOTEC’s calendar.

A planning commission meeting about a parking variance for the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center was briefly sidetracked over a discussion about the possible sale of the Hermiston Community Center, where the commission met on Wednesday night due to the closure of city hall.

Several commission members expressed opposition to the idea of the city selling the center.

City manager Byron Smith confirmed to the Hermiston Herald last week that the city is still willing to consider a sale once the potential buyer, who still hasn’t been named by the city, finalizes and submits a proposal.

Commissioners wondered how getting rid of the venue would affect EOTEC in light of EOTEC manager Al Davis’ comment that EOTEC’s event center was booked “pretty much every weekend” from February through the fair.

“There are not very many options to replace this building,” Phil Hamm said.

Margaret Saylor agreed, noting the community center also had amenities EOTEC didn’t, such as a stage.

“I just can’t conceive of a city only having a facility like EOTEC,” she said.

Davis said average attendance for weekend events at EOTEC, which range from fundraisers to quinceañeras, is about 500. He said organizers of smaller events in the 200-300 range didn’t like using EOTEC as much because the size of the great hall made the event look empty, but private options such as the Maxwell Event Center couldn’t hold crowds that large. He also noted both EOTEC and the community center often hosted events on the same night.

He said his phone started “ringing off the hook” when the Hermiston Herald published an article announcing the possibility of a sale of the community center.

“So it’s your expert opinion not to get rid of this valuable building?” commission member Ben Sargent asked Davis.

“It’s my expert opinion to stay out of it,” Davis responded, drawing chuckles.

In response to a question from the commission, city planner Clint Spencer confirmed that the city would not be able to sell the community center in secret, but would be required by law to hold a vote of the city council in a public meeting, advertised ahead of time, where public testimony would be taken.

The topic came up as the planning commission discussed parking at EOTEC. It was conducting its annual review of the variance that the city obtained from the commission in 2016, promising to meet certain conditions in exchange for not providing as many paved parking spaces as would normally be required by city ordinance for events with more than 2,000 attendees.

In January 2018, the commission chastised EOTEC — then jointly owned by the city of Hermiston and Umatilla County — for flouting several of the variance’s conditions in 2017, including the requirement to only use the Ott Road entrance in case of emergency and to submit various plans and permits before the fair.

In January 2019, the planning commission put a moratorium on new construction at EOTEC because the city had not yet submitted a written parking plan as required by the variance. The decision was a contributing factor to the decision to not build an RV park at EOTEC that had originally been planned for construction in 2019.

On Wednesday, Spencer suggested to the commission that they extend the deadline for the parking plan out another year, to 2021, because the city had still not submitted one.

Davis said that the city’s EOTEC advisory board was still working on an overall strategic plan for the site, and based on the slow progress he thought it could be as long five years before anything else — such as RV park intended to raise revenue for EOTEC or the office and storage space that had been promised to the Umatilla County Fair — was built on the site.

The potential sale of the community center complicated things as well, he said. It had always been a longterm goal of EOTEC to expand the event center eventually, but that expansion might look different depending on whether the city still had a community center.

If it did not, he said, the advisory board might write the plan to include a separate community center facility on site rather than just adding more rooms onto the end of the event center building.

“It’s part of the conversation the advisory board’s having, but how do you strategically plan for something that you don’t know is going to happen?” he said.

In light of the unfinished strategic and parking plans for EOTEC, the planning commission voted to amend two conditions of the variance.

They added a requirement that shuttles be used for the fair and rodeo week and that event organizers and the city work to determine whether any other events with more than 2,000 attendees needed a shuttle to keep up with parking demand.

They also extended the deadline for the parking plan from 2020 to 2021.

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