Not so very long ago, the Tulsa County fairgrounds needed some help.
Friends of the Fairgrounds, an independent foundation, "was basically the third leg of a three-part program" to support the fairgrounds, said Aubrey Ringleb, executive director of the nonprofit organization from 2003 until it dissolved earlier this year. The other two "legs": 4-to-Fix-the-County, approved by voters in 2000 and renewed in 2005, and Vision 2025, approved in a 2003 election.
Combined, those tax measures helped pay for $100 million in upgrades to Expo Square, the formal name for the fairgrounds.
And members of the foundation board, more than simply organizing fundraisers, "were also about creating longevity, creating something that was sustainable toward the fairgrounds for 20, 30, 40 years," Ringleb said, stressing the vision of being a means of support even in times when voters might not be interested in approving tax packages.
Things didn't go according to that plan, however, with a rift developing between the organization and the decision makers at the fairgrounds, despite the organization playing a key role in securing a 2007 deal with QuikTrip for naming rights to the Expo Center.
But it's that concept of sustainability that leads Ringleb to question a naming rights deal between the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, despite a hefty $1.44 million yearly payout.
At press time, the board that governs the fairgrounds had yet to vote for the third time on the deal, which would end horse racing at Fair Meadows and seemingly imperil the sport statewide.
The fair board at a Dec. 6 meeting reaffirmed their support for the deal in a second vote despite pleas from several in the horse racing industry. On Dec. 10, however, the fairgrounds announced another vote would be held because agreements which "outlined the terms for conducting the 2013 race meet at Fair Meadows" were signed in October. The planned afternoon vote on Dec. 12 took place after press time.
For Ringleb, it's the loss of QuikTrip that stings.
"I think that my first reaction was, 'Who kicks out QuikTrip?' to be honest," Ringleb said. She added: "I don't think it's necessarily a bad agreement. I just wonder if they have thought about the impact on the community."
She noted the fairgrounds has a similar naming rights deal with Ford, and suggested more deals would have been possible. "We had some very, very good potential sponsors for the last three remaining facilities, and then the Expo [board] decided to terminate the foundation's contract to do naming. That was a lot of effort wasted," Ringleb said.
While Ringleb praised QuikTrip, the Tulsa-based convenience store chain, as a community stalwart, Commissioner Fred Perry said in an interview that the company this summer balked at continuing the naming-rights relationship on the same terms.
"They were no longer willing to pay the same amount of money," Perry said.
In recent years, QuikTrip had paid about $230,000 annually to maintain naming rights for what had been known as the QuikTrip Expo Center.
For the Creeks, the naming rights deal likely hinges on ending live horse racing at Fair Meadows and thus reducing their financial obligation under terms of a complex state gaming compact. In a government news release, the Creeks announced the deal as a way to save millions.
So there might be a loss borne by the fairgrounds if the deal with the Creeks falls through for 2013, as the Expo Center could potentially be without any naming rights revenue.
"QuikTrip made a business decision based on value and return of investment.
We enjoyed our tenure, but have decided to move on," wrote company spokesman Mike Thornbrugh after news that the deal between the fairgrounds and the Creeks may be off.
The QuikTrip deal was structured in 2007 to give the foundation 30 percent of the naming rights fees, but those funds were devoted to future fairgrounds needs, Ringleb said, comparing her group to the Tulsa Library Trust.
"A lot of companies really liked the idea of a foundation being involved," Ringleb said. But the public facilities authority voted in May to end the arrangement to have the foundation solicit naming rights agreements; the organization disbanded the next month.
The group's naming rights revenue, more than $500,000, was given to the Tulsa State Junior Livestock Auction Corporation at the request of the fair board, Ringleb said.
At the Dec. 6 meeting, horse racing advocates spoke about how the deal with the Creeks had been months in the making.
"Chief [George] Tiger has said you were negotiating with the Creek Nation as early as January and February of this year to discontinue racing all together," said Mark Ramsey, an attorney representing the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Thoroughbred Racing Association of Oklahoma.
Ringleb, however, said her organization did not know anything about negotiations with the Creeks, even though they were still attempting to solicit naming-rights agreements early this year.
Neither Perry nor Mark Andrus, president and chief executive officer of Expo Square, disputed the assertions in the public meeting about when negotiations began with the Creeks.
Although Andrus and Perry emphasized the lack of attendance at the races, the fairgrounds' racing activities received roughly $2 million yearly in revenue from Indian tribes through a gambling compact agreement.
The compact came into existence after Oklahoma voters in 2004 approved State Question 712, a complex piece of gaming legislation which allowed gaming terminals at horse racing tracks in Oklahoma, except for Fair Meadows, while establishing a new "model compact" offered to Indian tribes.
For Indian tribes, deciding to opt into the compact allowed them to operate new games, specifically card games like blackjack. The agreement kept gaming terminals out of Fair Meadows so long as tribes gave the track and Tulsa County a portion of revenue from their local gaming operations, with funds also going to support horse racing purses.
The revenue-sharing agreement never seemed to make anyone happy, however; in 2010, The Oklahoman reported that the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission asked the state to investigate whether tribes were shirking payments related to the compact.
The proposed deal with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation includes giving the Creeks an exclusive two-year window to come up with a proposal for the vacant Driller Stadium. Any plans by the tribe for the property would have to be approved by the authority board.
Asked in an interview about the long-term rationale for the deal, Perry described the decline of live horse racing.
"The cost associated with racing continues to go up and the crowds continue to go down. But most importantly, it frees up the land," Perry said. The deal with the Creeks would run through the term of the group's gaming compact with the state, according to contract language.
But even before the third vote was announced, it was clear there would be a fight."The next step has already been taken. We've requested that Gov. Fallin look into how this agreement came about and whether or not the agreement violates the state tribal gaming compact," Ramsey said.
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