Sioux Empire Fair finances in solid shape as task force considers future of the fairgrounds

County officials say an offer to buy the land for possible expansion of nearby quartzite mine isn't on the table.

Aerial view of the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls.
Contributed / Sioux Empire Fair

SIOUX FALLS — The finances of the Sioux Empire Fair Association are healthier “than they’ve ever been,” CEO Scott Wick told a task force examining the future of the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds on Friday, Jan. 20.

The 15-member study group will give a final report in March to the Minnehaha County Commission. They started a final stretch of meetings leading up to that report hearing from a descendent of the family that donated the land for the 180 acre site along Interstate 29.

Winona Axtell Lyon made the donation in memory of her husband, William, a prominent city attorney. The couple, who owned numerous pieces of property in the city and county, didn’t have any children so grand-grand nephew Scott Axtell told the task force about his family history.

Axtell, one of 14 heirs to the family fortune, talked about how his great-great aunt donated land for parks that still stand today as well as three different parcels of land that make up the fairgrounds in 1938, 1940 and 1942.

The deed conveying the land has some restrictions, including a requirement that any lease or agreement concerning the property be negotiated every five years and also spells out uses on the land mostly allowing for the fair and other “uplifting purposes,” such as shows, concerts, plays and agricultural events.


It was also pointed out that in 1976 the city annexed the property, with the family’s approval and with more restrictions.

Although a proposal by a Sioux Falls company to buy the land to mine the quartzite under the grounds grabbed headlines last year, the task force and county officials said it’s not an issue at this time as they instead look at ways to renovate or expand the aging grounds and facilities and to attract more events and users.

Carol Muller.PNG
Carol Muller, Minnehaha County Commission administrator.

If a sale was even to be considered, the county commissioners would have to make that call although numerous legal issues would have to be addressed.

Wick wouldn’t comment on the issue after the meeting while County Commission Administrator Carol Muller said it’s “not even on the table.”

For now, the group is examining possible ways to fund any of those possible improvements and to look at other issues affecting the grounds.

One possibility for financial help is sales taxes. City sales tax isn’t collected on the grounds but state sales tax is.

Task force members were interested in whether city sales tax could be collected or if the state sales tax could be used for the fairgrounds rather than going to the state.

As for the five year negotiations on agreements, Muller pointed out that it could cause a problem for any businesses or groups wanting to invest long-term on the property.


The five-year agreement between the county and fair association is up this year and a new agreement is expected to be reached.

The fair’s improving finances had a severe setback in the early 2000s when an officer worker embezzled “north of $700,000,” according to Wick.

“We don’t want that to be our identity,” he said. “We’re in a good spot overall.”

Minnehaha County Commissioner Gerald Beninga.

County Commissioner Gerald Beninga and task force and fair association board member Ron Nelson said the relationship between the county board and the fair association has improved dramatically in recent years.

Nelson added that an agreement under which the county staff works on preventative maintenance issues on the grounds “has saved the county tons of money.”

A major issue has been roof repairs on some of the buildings on the grounds, Beninga said.

Although the proposal to buy the land isn’t being considered currently, a representative of Knife River Corp. who operates a quarry mine next to the fairgrounds was at the meeting.

The next meeting at the county commission offices is planned for Jan. 30 when the fairgrounds infrastructure and some of the problems with underground utilities will be discussed as well as more about the fair’s financial status.


A report released last month by a consultant hired by the county offered some ideas on what can be done on the grounds including a huge multipurpose events center and an expanded entertainment amphitheater and grandstand space.

A survey of current users also said they could expand events and attendance with buildings offering improved ventilation, show rings, bathrooms and security measures.

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