At the 2019 Illinois State Fair, the Coliseum will reopen under a new name selected from dozens of submissions by youths involved in Illinois agriculture: the Coliseum of Champions.
The name brands a planned grand reopening after the building was condemned in October 2016. A million-dollar gift from former Gov. Bruce Rauner and his wife, Diana Rauner, for the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation came with a request that Illinois students rename the building.
“You’ve got to hand it to Mr. Rauner; that was one heck of a donation. And Gov. [J.B.] and Mrs. Pritzker doing the same is heartening,” says the foundation’s chairman, John Slayton, referring to an $800,000 donation the current governing couple made using proceeds from the inauguration celebration held on the fairgrounds in January.
Both donations have potential for funding heating, cooling and other upgrades to the building during the third phase of reconstruction. Phase one, funded by the current state fiscal budget, is on schedule to open the Coliseum of Champions for events by July 20.
“There is some construction going on inside the structure right now. They’re replacing bolts, missing or cracked ones, and working on the column bases,” says Warren Goetsch, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “They’re getting ready to replace the roof, too, so you’re going to see a lot of activity, probably in a month or so.”
A new name
The Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation screened proposed names for the Coliseum from students involved in ag programs throughout the state. Slayton notes many of the entries were “Willy Wonka-like stuff. I don’t know where they came up with some of those names.”
Slayton recalls one suggestion to name the building after Old Bob, President Abraham Lincoln’s driving horse.
The foundation chose four names from the submissions and sent them to IDOA. The department landed on three winners submitted by three different students.
“These entries involved the words ‘champion’ and/or ‘coliseum.’ In the end we went with ‘the Coliseum of Champions,’” Slayton says, adding those top three students will be awarded unlimited-ride mega passes at this year’s state fair.
Emma Eathington of Fairview Huskies 4-H was one of the three winners. Elaina Kessler of Clay City FFA and Kylie Neisler of Country Roots 4-H Club of Montgomery County also won.
Eathingon says she’s watched champions be placed from the stands in years past, giving her inspiration to submit “the Coliseum of Champions.”
“When I think of the Illinois State Fair Coliseum, I think of all the champions that walk through it,” Eathington says. “So I figured, ‘Hey, why don’t we get something like that in?’”
She’s exhibited both heifers and steers over the past eight years at the state fair, but this year, she’s only showing a heifer.
EXHIBITING: Emma Eathington of the Fairview Huskies 4-H Club submitted one of the winning names in the Coliseum naming contest. She has shown cattle at the Illinois State Fair for eight years and is pictured here exhibiting at her home county fair in 2018.
“I just enjoy bonding with my heifers and having that extra time,” Eathington says. “That means there’s no chance of being placed in the Coliseum, which is for market animals. Maybe my brother Kyle will be exhibiting a steer, and it would be pretty cool to be able to show them there — but we’ll see how the year goes.”
Building a foundation
When the Coliseum was condemned in 2016, the fairgrounds stopped becoming a venue for several large horse shows.
“Hopefully we get them back. Because people love this Coliseum,” Slayton says.
He drew a comparison between the Illinois State Fairgrounds landmark and another similarly styled structure at the Iowa State Fairgrounds site that’s been renovated.
“They just celebrated their 25th anniversary as a foundation. Since their inception, they’ve raised $135 million,” Slayton says, estimating the 2-year-old Illinois foundation has accumulated $2.1 million so far in donations.
“We are trying to do our best, but it may not be going as fast as we originally hoped for,” he adds.
Goetsch says that in addition to a $30 million appropriation from the state for the fairgrounds, a second capital appropriation is being used to start new projects. Additionally, the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation is reaching out for industry partners.
“We’re in the process of another project to reroof all the 25 Series barns,” Goetsch says, adding that it’s possible a number of the 16 barns will be finished by the next state fair.
“There’s been some short-term repairs that stuck bright red galvanized roofs on two or three of them, and it looks terrible. The state fairgrounds is a historic, site so we need to do everything right and make everything consistent,” Slayton concludes.