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Mining company wants to buy Sioux Empire fairgrounds, county says it's not that easy

The W.H. Lyon Family Fairgrounds may be finding another use. The land was given to the county more than 80 years ago, but the county says selling the land is complicated.

In 1938, Winona Lyon deeded land to Minnehaha County land with a stipulation — it had to be used as county fairgrounds. The land has been home to the popular Sioux Empire Fair and other events ever since.

But today, the grounds have seen better days. That’s because the tax revenue from the fairgrounds doesn't go to the county for upkeep and maintenance.

Minnehaha County Commissioner Jean Bender said the already cash-strapped county has no resources for fairgrounds.

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Jean Bender speaks at a recent county commission meeting about the future of the fairgrounds.

“There’s never been any mistake about the fact that this was a gift to the county. But the county has no revenue source, zero revenue source, to maintain the fairgrounds," said Bender.

Developers say 'sell it'

One company has its eye on the fairground property.

Clark Meyer, president of the Knife River company, already mines Sioux Falls’ famous pink quartzite on land right next to the fairgrounds. He said the quartzite underneath the fairgrounds serves a plethora of purposes.

“Quarzite aggregate is used in many things we use every day. It starts with rip-rap along riverbanks and lakes, and it’s a major ingredient in ready-mix concrete and asphalt concrete," Meyer said. "Those things of course go in your roads, bridges, basements, walls, floors, sidewalks, your churches, schools. So, almost everything you touch every day has this quartzite in it.”

Meyer said the existing quartzite mine next door to the fairgrounds has less than five years left. He said the rapidly growing region is reliant on the locally-sourced rock.

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With a red overlay is the mine and a purple overlay is the fairgrounds.

“The other part of it is the source being very close to the final end use. That saves on transportation, that saves on traffic, and so it makes it very economical for the end user," Meyer said.

And those “end users” agree.

Craig Lloyd owns Lloyd companies, the biggest real estate construction and development company in Sioux Falls.

Lloyd said if Knife River doesn’t mine the fairgrounds, aggregate will be shipped into Sioux Falls via train – meaning higher costs, more traffic, and more noise.

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Craig Lloyd speaks at a recent county commission meeting about the future of the fairgrounds.

“And if that train noise goes from what it is today to eight to ten more trains a day, that’s going to affect the economic development of the downtown and the billions of dollars that we, private citizens, are investing. Which is also future taxes for this county.”

The president of the fairgrounds Scott Wik, declined an interview for this story and deferred comments to the county.

The county commission said it’s open to ideas, but a change in ownership would be extremely complicated because of how the land was first given to the county.

The terms of Winona Lyon’s 1938 trust say without a fair or public event on the land for five consecutive years, immediate possession would revert to the next of kin.

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The county commission is concerned that selling the land to a mining company breaks the trust — even if they re-build the fairgrounds elsewhere.

Commissioner Bender said the county does not have a clear legal path to sell the property.

“That land was a gift to the county, and that gift is very tightly constrained. And the risk is that if we sell that property the property would go back to the heirs and the county would get nothing for it,” Bender said.

The next move for the commission will be an economic and marketing study to identify the value and best future of the fairgrounds. A county task force is also bringing stakeholders together to decide if investment in the current fairgrounds is the right choice.

Community concerns

While the current focus is on economics, there are questions about how additional mining so close to the Big Sioux River could affect water quality.

Jay Gilbertson, manager of the East Dakota Water Development District, said that while nothing is guaranteed, impacts on the river from future mining are not a concern.

“I'm not aware of any particular water quality, groundwater quality, water impact issues that have arisen from the existing quarries, which have been in place for a very long time,” Gilbertson said.

But for residents who live near the existing mine and fairgrounds, the idea of additional mining is not welcome.

Janice Walker has been living nearby for 52 years. Since the day she moved in, she has dealt with dust from the mine, and damage when the mine blasts rock.

“When they dynamite down there my whole house shakes. My ceiling is all cracked out there, and some of the walls, we had to replace them. And the foundation is cracked in the basement down there,” Walker said. “And is just the irritation of the dust and dirt all the time," Walker said.

SDPB talked to multiple people in the neighborhood who also say their homes have been damaged by the blasting.

The county has not made any decision about the fairgrounds.

County Commissioner Cindy Heiberger said people need to recognize how complicated a decision about the property's future will be.

“We’ve got people telling us that they are willing to invest money if we come up with a decent plan. I don’t think we’re ready to look at a master plan yet because we haven’t even figured out if it’s feasible at this point," Heiberger said.

County commissioners say even if they can sell the land, the process would need to go through a sealed bid, a realtor, or an auction — rather than a direct sale to Knife River.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.