SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The 2019 Illinois State Fair traditionally opens with a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the main gate. This year was no different, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other state officials did the honors.
However, the opening that attracted the most attention — and relief — was conducted in front of the building deemed the showpiece and the crown jewel of the Illinois State Fair.
“The theme of this year’s state fair is ‘Building Our Future,’ making sure that we are shaping a world that works for generations to come, Illinoisans yet to come, and that applies to this building,” said Pritzker, just moments before he cut the ribbon to reopen the Coliseum.
Helping Pritzker with those duties were the three young people who participated in and whose entries won a contest to name the Coliseum. Elaina Kessler of the Clay City FFA, Emma Eathington of the Fairview Huskies 4-H Club and Kylie Neisler of the Country Roots 4-H Club of Montgomery County had the winning entries to christen the building the Coliseum of Champions. The Governor’s Sale of Champions, which is traditionally conducted to finish out Agriculture Day at the fair, will return to the Coliseum this year.
One auctioneer who hailed that return was John Sullivan, former state senator and current director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
“We are here today to do the ribbon cutting on the Coliseum, the crown jewel of the Illinois State Fairgrounds. This project is absolutely an amazing project. The Sale of Champions is going to be held right here in the Coliseum on Tuesday evening,” Sullivan said.
Warren Goetsch, the deputy director of the IDOA, noted the differences from an October morning in 2016.
“We received word that the consulting engineering firm that we had called in after a beam had fallen inside the Coliseum had completed their evaluations of the structural integrity of the building. They were recommending that we close the venue to the public until several identified problems were corrected,” Goetsch said.
The Coliseum was closed and remained closed through two State Fairs. The Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, a private, nonprofit charitable foundation, worked on fundraising to pay for the extensive repairs and upgrades the 1901 building needed.
Two major donations came from two Illinois governors. In August 2018, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner and his wife, Diana, announced a donation of $1 million from their family foundation. Newly-elected Gov. Pritzker followed up in January 2019 with an $800,000 donation from ticket sales to his inauguration party.
In January, the state accepted a $10.2 million bid from R.D. Lawrence, the contractor who completed restoration work on the Illinois Governor’s Mansion in Springfield for the work. Work on the structure began immediately and included both structural repairs inside and out.
Jim Underwood, director of the Capital Development Board, described the extensive and painstaking work that was done from January to August.
“The existing structure components, some of which dated back to original construction, had to be replaced to meet current building codes. This was done in a sequence of events in small portions starting at the top of the roof in a circular fashion, all around the perimeter of the building. Once the structural aspects were in place, the roof decking and roofing systems were able to be installed. All the while, the existing steel was sandblasted and repainted, along with the installation of the new windows,” Underwood said.
He said that on average, there were 40 people working daily on two shifts to complete the reconstruction.
But, as Goetsch noted, the work that enabled the Coliseum to be open for the 2019 Illinois State Fair is just the start. Further phases of work include installing heating and air conditioning so the venue can be used year-round and to continue exterior repairs and restoration.
“We want this structure, which is truly the heart and soul of the fairgrounds, to continue to be the basis of fantastic memories for all who visit here for generations to come,” Goetsch said.