Those involved with planning new facilities at the Douglas County Fairgrounds concede they don’t fully know what events might be held there when they become available for use next year.
“It’s already extremely busy out there and used a lot,” said Douglas County assistant administrator Sarah Plinsky. “We really think these new facilities will make the fairgrounds infinitely more useful. We already have softball teams practicing in the indoor arena. I know people will use these new amenities in ways we never meant. We’re fine with that, as long as it’s safe.”
Construction on the long-anticipated $7.95 million fairgrounds project got underway last month when work started on the new 7,600-square-foot meeting hall, which is slated to be finished for this year’s county fair. Construction bids have been awarded for the $2.75 million, 52,000-square-foot open pavilion and the $1.75 million, 1,935-seat event arena, Plinsky said. Associated upgrades will build new restrooms and add 184 new parking spaces through expansions of current parking lots and construction of a new one.
The project also would address the fairgrounds’ accessibility issues and deferred maintenance needs, Plinsky said.
Earthwork has started for the open pavilion to be built on a site east of the current indoor arena. Plinsky said that new building should be completed in December. As an open-air facility with no heating, it will not be used in the winter and will host its first event this time next year, she said.
The project's final big piece is the event arena, which will replace the derby arena. Work on that venue will not start until after the fair and should be completed about the same time as the open pavilion, she said.
Other work awaiting the fair’s completion is the razing of current livestock exhibition barns, which will no longer be needed with the livestock judging arena that is part of the open pavilion, Plinsky said.
Although Plinsky and Douglas County Commission Chairman Jim Flory, who served on the subcommittee with Plinsky that developed the master plan for the fairgrounds' improvements, anticipate unexpected uses to pop up, they said the new facilities were designed with specific uses in mind.
For example, the event arena’s horseshoe design closed to the west provides enough room for the fair’s demolition derby and a rodeo, Plinsky said. Open ground to the east is available for events needing more space, such as tractor pulls and BMX races, she said.
Although she envisions the open pavilion to be in demand for car, home and trade shows, many of its features were designed to accommodate livestock shows, Plinsky said. It would have an attached livestock judging arena, semi-truck parking, an animal wash bay and an adjacent 16-slot RV parking lot that could be doubled.
“I don’t think people understand what kind of special event a livestock show is,” Plinsky said. “If someone brings a $30,000 quarter horse to an event, they’re not going to leave it alone overnight, and you can’t take a horse with you to your room at The Eldridge. That explains the need for RV parking.”
What was learned in the design process was a growing demand for venues that provide indoor and outdoor space, Plinsky said. When the new facilities are in place, the fairgrounds would be positioned to host such events as horse shows, which need boarding areas and outdoor performance space, Plinsky said.
The county will work with eXplore Lawrence to help market the upgraded fairgrounds and create a presence on the county’s website, on which reservations can be booked, Plinsky said. Nonetheless, she said much of the marketing will be word of mouth.
“Right now, the fairgrounds are booked a year in advance,” she said. “I generally don’t have to worry about getting the word out.”
Flory said he and his fellow commissioners still need to approve policies for the new venues’ uses and their rental fee structures. That later task would balance keeping rent fees affordable for community uses while ensuring taxpayers are spared much of the maintenance and ongoing operational costs, he said.
The process that led to the improvements started before he took his seat on the County Commission in 2008, when the prior board responded to with a request for upgrades with a call that a fairgrounds improvement master plan be completed, Flory said. His membership on the subcommittee that developed the plan makes gratifying its realization in his last year on the County Commission, especially as commissioners worked together to pay for the upgrades through the county’s capital improvement fund without the need of any added debt, he said.
The result will be new amenities for the enjoyment of county residents, which also provide dollars-and-cents benefits as out-of-county visitors attend events, Flory said.
“I didn’t realize how busy the fairgrounds were until I got on the Commission,” he said. “I think we’ll all be surprised, and pleasantly surprised, about the economic impact of these facilities.”