The Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield is being readied for fall and winter events at a pace described as “full steam ahead” by fair manager Kevin Gordon, though some projects that would have been finished before the state fair this summer are being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, skeleton crews continue to prep the grounds for attendees.
A decision on whether the state fair will take place or not amid the pandemic has yet to be reached by Illinois officials, but Gordon says he’s optimistic the science behind Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase plan for reopening Illinois has potential for revision to allow for outdoor events greater than 50 people before the fair, scheduled for Aug. 13-23.
The state recently moved into Phase 3 of Restoring Illinois, permitting gatherings of 10 or fewer people. Phase 4 allows groups of 50 or fewer, while Phase 5 has no restrictions on gatherings. However, Phase 5 can’t happen until a coronavirus vaccine or effective treatment is widely available to Illinoisians.
Even if Phase 5 or adjustments to the plan are held off until after the state fair, several more events are scheduled through 2020 and 2021, such as the Monarch Show Series National Championship in October and the Illinois Beef Expo in February. Gordon says the state fair itself can’t be delayed because it’s scheduled a year or two in advance with vendors. No matter what, repairs to the coliseum, electrical wiring work on the grandstands and more will continue ahead of the fair.
“We continue to plan and prepare for the fair,” says Kristi Jones, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The improvements that have been made to date impact more events than the fair, though. The other 355 days of the year have livestock and horse shows that bring thousands of people to the fairgrounds, and they’re really noticing the improvements.”
The fairgrounds have benefited from a $30 million appropriation in the 2019 fiscal year state budget that has so far been used on paving roads, as well as putting new roofs on the dairy and junior livestock buildings. The funds are now being directed to repave more roadways on the fairgrounds, like A Street from Gate 11 to 4-H Lane.
Other projects such as reroofing the Exposition Building and the theater portion of the Illinois Building will be complete by the end of this year after being set back by COVID-19. Ahead of the fair, four new planter boxes are being added to display Illinois’ leading crops.
Pritzker has donated $800,000 and former Gov. Bruce Rauner donated $1 million to the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, along with other philanthropists and organizations. While donations have slowed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown, the foundation’s chairman, John Slayton, says upgrades his group commissioned to the recently renamed Coliseum of Champions and the 25 Series barns are continuing.
Fairgrounds repair schedule
The most notable upgrades are taking place at the coliseum, which received a new roof and added structural support costing a total of $12 million ahead of the 2019 fair. Phase 2 is being split up into four smaller phases amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with air conditioning for the hallways scheduled to be complete before the 2020 fair dates. Large fans were installed in 2019.
The majority of the work is taking place after the 2020 fair. New seating, bathrooms, geothermal wells, an elevator and vents are scheduled to be installed ahead of the 2021 fair.
Jones says a temporary showing area for horses established in an arena near the coliseum served its purpose for a time when the building was condemned in 2016.
“I have a daughter who shows horses. I was able to see her move from that makeshift, covered arena back into the coliseum in the fall. It is such a jewel to have that facility,” Jones says, noting that in 2019, she talked with people who traveled from Michigan and the East Coast to attend Illinois shows in the coliseum for the first time in years.
If the state fair takes place this year, air conditioning will be ready for attendees in the corridor area of the coliseum. While there’s no AC in the main show area yet, Jones says judges last year had to wear jackets “because the fans got the room that cold.” Further upgrades such as new seats and updated bathrooms are scheduled for after the 2020 fair. Gordon says they’re on track to finish the building by December 2021.
“We still have some non-fair events in there, September up through November, and the access will be from the north, because we’re closing the south side for upgrades. Then from November through March, the repair crews will basically take over the entire coliseum,” Gordon says.
Another upgrade, which will be ready before the fair, is repainting and improving the roofing of the Food-A-Rama pavilion. It will be renamed after the Reisch family of brewers who’ve raised money for the fairgrounds through Reisch beer sales.
Through donations to the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, Compeer Financial has also funded repair work on the historic 25 Series barns. The first remodeled 25 barn was completed in 2019, and the second will be done in time for the 2020 state fair. Each of those buildings will receive a new roof, ventilation system, tuckpointing on brick walls, electric work, plumbing and new paint.
The Livestock Center, where most open cattle shows are held, will also be renamed the Obernagel Family Farms Livestock Center after family patriarch George Obernagel, Waterloo, Ill., who has financially supported upgrades to that facility for the past three years.