Tuesday during the annual Ag Day Breakfast at the Illinois State Fair, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the formation of the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, to great fanfare among the agricultural community.
Rauner acknowledged the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, and underscored the dismal state of the fairgrounds.
“We have one of the oldest, largest, most beautiful fairs anywhere in America,” Rauner said. “Unfortunately, for years and years, we’ve allowed our fairgrounds to deteriorate.”
His observation was deeply articulated by the agricultural community at the fair during the past week, as livestock exhibitors noted leaking roofs, missing shingles, poor electrical capability, poor audio systems and dirty, poorly lit, rundown buildings.
Friday night’s floods, created when more than 5 inches of rain fell in 2 hours, put an exclamation point on the tenuous electrical state of several buildings, including the junior livestock building where water covered power cords and poured through light fixtures. By Tuesday, electrical outages were rampant across the fairgrounds, the result of damage incurred when Happy Hollow flooded and destroyed more than 50 campers and many more vehicles.
The 360-acre Illinois State Fairgrounds date back to 1894 and are home to more than 170 buildings, with the oldest at 124 years. Du Quoin State Fairgrounds has more than 20 buildings on 1,200 acres; the oldest is 93 years old.
Rauner spoke of the historical need for a foundation, adding that Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana all operate successful fairground foundations, and noted that money from Illinois agricultural companies is going out of state to support those foundations.
For the past two years, legislators have attempted to create a fairgrounds foundation, including a bill from then-representative Raymond Poe, now Director of Agriculture. Last year, Speaker Mike Madigan never called it for a vote in the House; this year, in the final days of the spring session, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, tacked on an amendment that would both re-open the Illinois State Museum and remove the procurement code exemption from the Foundation. The bill lost agricultural support and never moved forward.
John Slayton, vice president at US Bank, announced the board members who will direct the foundation and says they’ll hold their first meeting in September or October. Slayton has spent the past 26 years organizing the Sale of Champions and recruiting corporate bidders. Board members were finalized during a conference call last week, and the 501c3 paperwork was filed on Monday with the Secretary of State’s office, officially creating the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation. The Foundation will cover both fairgrounds in Springfield and Du Quoin.
Members of the foundation board include:
• John Slayton, vice president, US Bank
• George F. Czapar, associate dean and director, U of I Office of Extension and Outreach
• Craig Ratajczyk, CEO, Illinois Soybean Association
• Chandra Roberts, marketing director, BRANDT Specialty Formulations
• Sam Madonia, radio host, Sports Radio1450
• Julie Maschhoff, co-owner, The Maschhoffs
• Raymond Poe, Director of Agriculture (non-voting member)
• Heidi Brown-McCreery, director of Historic Preservation Agency (non-voting member)
“The wonderful thing for the people of Illinois is now private citizens, farm families, community leaders and agriculture executives are stepping forward to take leadership on this issue,” Rauner said. “This foundation will be completely independently run. This is all private money, all private management, all private control.”
When asked whether foundation projects would follow state purchasing laws, Rauner said that would be determined – and that they would follow all existing laws. Slayton says projects will go through the state’s Capital Development Board.
Slayton added that the board would refer to a list of maintenance projects produced by the Capital Development Board as a point of reference to determine which projects to tackle first. The Department of Agriculture estimates $180 million in back maintenance needs to be done on the grounds.
How fast can they work? Slayton doesn’t expect fairgoers and exhibitors to see a lot of changes by 2017. “I’d say it’s going to take some time. You’ll see minor changes before next year’s fair. It’s gonna take a while.”
No money has been pledged so far, according to Slayton, other than the Governor’s announcement that he and his wife would like to make a donation. By law, all donations will be disclosed.
Rauner has visited the fair daily both last and this year, and has repeatedly reiterated his support of the farm community, noting that “agriculture is the backbone of this state’s prosperity.”
The governor closed the Ag Day Breakfast with an official proclamation: “I, Governor Bruce Rauner, do hereby celebrate the incorporation of the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation and look forward to collaboration between the Foundation and the Department of Agriculture and urge all Illinoisans to be part of the restoration of their fairgrounds by donating to the foundation and celebrating the state fairs.
“This is a great day, everybody.”