With successful debut of new facilities, Douglas County Fair Board looks to add events

Morgan Trowbridge, foreground left, provides some tips to Eudora 4-H Club member Reilly Neis, 8, right, as they work with a lamb Friday evening, July 28, 2017 inside the new Open Pavilion at the Douglas County Fair.

Those taking in last week’s Douglas County Fair saw lots of new facilities, but little in the way of new activities.

That was by design, fair officials say.

This was the first year all the new facilities included in the $7.95 million fairgrounds renovation project were available for the fair. The two jewels of the renovations — the $2.75 million Open Pavilion and $1.75 million, 1,935-seat Outdoor Arena — were finished this year, with the final details of the arena completed just weeks before the fair. Although the Jim Flory Meeting Hall was opened just before the 2016 fair, it wasn’t used as an exhibit site until this year.

The Douglas County Fair Board approached the fair with so many new facilities as a learning experience, said Shane Newell, fair board president.

People line up for tickets to the Demolition Derby Friday evening, July 28, 2017 at the Douglas County Fair. In the background is the new Open Pavilion that is located near the outdoor derby arena. Both facilities are new this year at the fairgrounds.

“We wanted to see how everything works and how it worked together,” he said.

What fair board members found was how well everything went, Newell said. Traffic was moving smoothly in the fairgrounds thanks to new sidewalks and some realignment of fair features, he said. Livestock shows moved quicker, too, and the Open Air Pavilion provided more comfort to 4-H’ers, spectators and livestock.

Volunteers supervising the different shows also said they were better attended, with the llama show Thursday morning said to be the best-attended ever, said Douglas County Extension Director Marlin Bates. Additionally, event judges of the 4-H shows were impressed with the Open Air Pavilion, the other new facilities and the commitment of the county to provide them, he said.

It’s Bates’ view that commitment from county taxpayers in the fairgrounds obligates the fair board to enhance the fair.

“We have world-class facilities,” he said. “With that comes the responsibility to have world-class events. I think we’ll see some big additions in the next year or two.”

Bates, Newell and fair board member Brandon Falley said they expect the board to start having discussions in the coming weeks about what could be added to the fair.

Adding an event or events to the Outdoor Arena was the most obvious way to expand the fair. This year, there was no event scheduled for Wednesday evening. The other three nights were filled with the Thursday antique tractor pull, which got rained out; Friday evening’s demolition derby, which is the fair board’s big money-maker; and a garden tractor pull on Saturday.

A young boy walks into the new Open Pavilion building and past the fairgrounds' recently expanded RV and trailer parking area on the east side of the pavilion, Friday, July 28, 2017.

Falley said some expansion ideas already have been tossed around. One would be a rodeo, he said, noting the Outdoor Arena is often called the rodeo arena, although the fairgrounds have had no such event in years. A headliner musical concert is also a possibility, he said.

The fair board does want to draw more county residents to the fair so they can view and enjoy the projects of county 4-H’ers, Falley said. But he said those events needed to fit with what already exists.

“We need to do our due diligence for the fair and the community,” he said. “We don’t want to bring something in just to do it. It has to complement the fair and be something people of Douglas County want to come see.”

The fair board already sponsors events scheduled outside of the one-week fair, such as its spring livestock show, and it could add others, Newell said.

Sarah Plinsky, assistant Douglas County administrator, said the county would welcome such a move, especially if it made use of the Outdoor Arena.

Crowds watch the demolition derby from new concrete stands with a backdrop of the ferris wheel from Moore’s Greater Shows carnival Friday evening, July 28, 2017 at the Douglas County Fair.

Because of the cost, Plinsky said, whether the Outdoor Arena should be included as part of the renovations was a subject of frequent debate. The new arena’s seating, built on earthen banks like the Lawrence High School stadium, has the same capacity as the old arena’s permanent bleachers, Plinsky said, adding that the arena was also designed with the idea that people could watch events from its grass embankments.

“Absolutely, families can bring a tarp or blanket and enjoy the evening,” she said. “With the hill at (the University of Kansas’) Memorial Stadium, it’s a tradition in Lawrence to watch events from the grass.”

With its recent completion, there have not been any rentals of the arena, Plinsky said. However, there is interest.

“Word travels fast,” she said. “We are definitely seeing more and different people using space.”

Even before the renovations, there was some kind of event scheduled at the fairgrounds nearly every weekend, Plinsky said. With that demand, the county historically has not had to market the fairgrounds. That approach has changed with the renovations, and the county is now working closely with eXplore Lawrence as it looks to attract large livestock associations or motor-sport organizations that book events a couple of years in advance, she said.

“eXplore Lawrence has events coming to them wanting facilities in the area,” she said. “The fairgrounds is another thing to put in the repertoire with Rock Chalk Park and the Holidome (now the DoubleTree by Hilton).”

The convention and tourism bureau also provides information on lodging, dining and entertainment available in Lawrence to those who rent fairgrounds facilities through the county, Plinsky said.

The county became aware during the planning for the renovations that there was a demand for venues offering both indoor and outdoor facilities like the Community Building, Open Air Pavilion and Outdoor Arena, Plinsky said. Having the three facilities at one venue gives the county a lot of marketing flexibility.

“It could be a smaller event that rents one venue, or a larger event that rents them all,” she said. “That’s the beauty of it. It can all be used together or separately. It has a variety of different uses.”