When the fairgrounds manager enters the indoor arena, those walls - studded with 14 years' worth of dirt kicked up in horse shows and county fairs - laugh at him.

"I can't stand to look at them anymore," said Gary Friedman, manager of the Clatsop County Fairgrounds and Expo center. "They drive me crazy."

Washing has been attempted. The walls have prevailed. The dirt remains.

"There's no getting that stuff off," Friedman said.

But the days of triumph are numbered and the future looks like supply wood slathered in washable paint and put up over the old, dirty walls.

Maintenance projects like this are currently paid for by a property tax that allows the county to levy 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

This five-year local option tax levy saved the fairgrounds in 2006 when the choices were to ask voters for money or to close up shop.

Now, with the previous levy reaching the end of its run, the Fair Board is once again asking the voters for money. This time, it's asking for less.

Ballot Measure 4-148, on the May 18, 2010 primary election ballot, would levy a property tax of 7 cents per $1,000 assessed property value each year for five years, beginning in fiscal year 2011-12.

This would raise an estimated $365,220 in the first year and an estimated $411,000 the fifth year. For the owner of a $200,000 home, the annual cost would be $14.

Before the first tax levy, the fairgrounds had limped along and many maintenance projects had been put off for lack of money.

Now, thanks to that first levy, they've started to catch up on the long list of projects. These included upgrading the sound and electrical systems, roof repairs, landscaping, installing a cover on the outdoor riding area and replacing tidegates.

Despite the variety of these projects (in both nature and cost), Friedman says the fair board has never completely used up all the tax money for a given year. The extra money has been put aside into a contingency fund.

"The fair board is pretty frugal," Friedman said. "It hasn't been a freewheeling spending of money."

Which is one reason why they are asking for less money this time around.

"We don't want to be a burden," Friedman said. "We want to stand on our own."

"But I don't know if we'll ever be able to get away from (the tax) entirely," he added. He doesn't know of any fairground in Oregon that could survive without help from taxpayers. "Maybe we'll be the first?"

In the meantime, he wants to be wise with what money the fairgrounds has.

While rental fees and funding from the Oregon Lottery cover the fairgrounds' annual operating costs such as the facilities' staff and utilities, this money is not enough, Friedman said.

The tax money covers everything else. It is used for capital projects (any new addition or improvement to the existing facilities), maintenance and upkeep.

"We have criteria for the tax money," Friedman said. "Each project has to, one, give us flexibility. And two, it has to have kind of a pay back: it saves us set up time or it makes the place more likely to be used or rented for other things."

Besides the dirty walls (an improvement project), the fairgrounds is working with the Energy Trust of Oregon to install better, more energy-efficient lights in the 40,000 square-foot indoor arena.

Also on the list are plans to expand parking and buy new bleachers, preferably ones that are actually meant to be portable.

"We treat our current bleachers like they're portable - they're really not," Friedman said.

Located three miles south of Astoria, the fairgrounds provides a venue to 4-H events - field days, animal weigh-ins for the county fair, archery workshops, horse shows, dog shows - and FFA events. Groups rent out the expo center for banquets, parties and weddings. It's where people go for the annual Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, for the county fair and for the crab festival.

Last weekend, visitors to the annual Astoria-Warrenton Crab, Seafood and Wine festival walked on a smooth plastic floor.

This floor was paid for by dollars from the current tax levy and covered the arena's dirt floor, Friedman said. The plastic pieces snap together and the whole thing can be rolled up in sections when it's no longer needed. Value added? Check. Saves time in set up and take down? Check, check.

Katherine Kahl, a 4-H leader, says many kids are involved in 4-H and FFA because of the county fair alone.

"For a lot of members, that's the highlight of their year," she said.

"The fair especially has the ability to bring people together from all parts of the county who would not usually get together," said County Commissioner Dirk Rohne in a phone interview.

The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners voted to support the tax levy at a board meeting in March.

Rohne grew up on the North Coast and was a member of the FFA.

"It was a chance to get off the farm," he said. "You'd be out on your own. I made a lot of friendships with a lot of different people."

Also, he said, the fairgrounds is one of the larger emergency shelters in the area. Another good reason to keep it up and running, he said.

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