SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The money isn’t coming in quite like John Slayton envisioned it would for the repairs at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
“I really envisioned people calling me, but it has not happened,” said Slayton, chairman of the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation.
As the list of repairs needed at both fairgrounds, in Springfield and in Du Quoin, grows, donations have not been as quick to come into the foundation, which was formed in August 2016.
The latest fairgrounds casualty is Barn 13. Emergency repairs to the roof of the barn were announced in January.
The state’s Capital Development Board announced that water damage prompted the emergency repairs to the roof and justified the expense for those repairs.
The total deferred maintenance costs for the fairgrounds is around $180 million.
The priority project is the repairs to the Coliseum. The Coliseum was closed in October 2016 after it was found to have structural deficiencies. That pushed larger horse shows and events to other venues — and other states.
“The Coliseum is the priority, mainly because of the horse shows. Losing horse shows and having them go to different venues and out of state altogether, potentially risking losing those long-term relationships, is a huge risk,” Slayton said.
Donations are coming into the fairgrounds foundation. Slayton said the foundation received a $40,000 donation to replace the roof of one of the M-series barns.
That donation came from a family who used to show cattle at the Illinois State Fair.
Brick By Brick
Slayton said the sheer scale of the work that needs to be done is intimidating.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but there are 19 more buildings that need the same shingles put on them, that would be about $800,000,” he said.
Some buildings have undergone temporary repairs to keep them useable.
“They have roofed over some of the M-series barns with bright red metal roofing that looks terrible, but it’s a short term fix until we can get some more donors,” Slayton said.
As the 2018 Illinois Horse Fair kicked off, with the exhibition events moved to the covered arena, next to the shuttered Coliseum, one barn on the other side of the Coliseum sported a “Do Not Enter — Condemned” sign that warned of “nails and shrapnel,” while another was padlocked shut, with plywood nailed over windows missing glass.
“I think there are around 170 buildings on the fairgrounds in Springfield, and I truly believe every one of them needs attention,” Slayton said.
But it’s the Coliseum that draws the high-attendance, high-dollar horse shows that have, for now, gone elsewhere.
Paula Briney, president of the Illinois Horsemen’s Council, said she hopes to see some action taken on the Coliseum and on the other buildings, too.
“This is a beautiful facility. The stalls are good, the buildings are good, but they just need to be maintained so the roofs aren’t leaking. The electrical system needs to be brought up to standards so you can plug in a coffeepot and things like that,” she said.
The Perfect Place
Briney said the Coliseum presented the perfect venue for showing horses and that horse owners were eager to bring their horses, particularly young stock, to shows held there.
“It’s a cool place to show. The horses show well in it, and the reason it shows well is because it’s not a flat ring. The ring has some curvature to it. They show well around the sides, and they can use it for speed events. It’s a nice safe ring, and people can see the horses and the riders, they are right there and not so far away,” she said.
Briney said that connected facilities, including the warm-up rings, also made the Coliseum an ideal horse show venue.
One major event that continues to be held at the fairgrounds, but that featured the Coliseum was the Midwest Charity Horse Show. The 77th annual show runs this year at the fairgrounds on June 12-16.
“When the Coliseum was up and running, we won show of the year on the national level for nine years,” Briney said.
The Illinois Horsemen’s Council published a full-page letter in the Springfield Journal-Register newspaper, a week before the Illinois Horse Fair, urging state and local officials to commit to action on the fairgrounds repairs.
The letter was addressed to Gov. Bruce Rauner; state Sen. Chuck Weaver; state Rep. Ryan Spain; Raymond Poe, director of agriculture; Jim Langfelder, mayor of Springfield; and the Sangamon County Board.
The letter notes that the fairgrounds “is about to be lost forever due to delayed maintenance.”
The letter also notes that several events have left the fairgrounds, causing economic losses not just to Springfield businesses, but to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
The letter cites “smaller shows pay between $5,000 to $10,000 in rental fees to the Illinois Department of Agriculture” and larger shows may pay up to $21,000 in stabling fees at the fairgrounds during events.
The letter, signed by Briney, praises the Springfield fairgrounds as “the best in the country with its superior footing, ample warm-up rings, excellent stabling and its village-like atmosphere.”
They conclude by pleading with officials “urge you not to delay any longer in fixing the Illinois State Fairgrounds.”
Holding Out Hope
Slayton said he is hopeful that more donations will continue to come in and that agriculture and other companies will step forward with help.
“We are extremely close to an agreement with an ag association in Illinois on naming rights for the Coliseum. They are ready to go, but they want to make sure of the timeline for the repairs to the Coliseum,” he said.
Slayton said that agreement could mean up to $2 million over 10 years.
He is hopeful that state officials will make the repairs a priority this year.
“The governor’s office, the governor, the governor’s chief of staff have all promised they will keep the Capital Development Board work on the front burner and try to do this in phases so we can use at least part of the Coliseum for this year’s fair,” he said.
While he is hopeful, Slayton doesn’t expect to see the $180 million that is estimated to be needed to fix the backlog of repairs at both fairgrounds.
“If I live to 150 we won’t be there,” he said.
They likely will be hearing from Briney and from others who use the Coliseum on a year-round basis for various events and shows.
“That’s going to be one of our big focuses for this year, to really push to get the Coliseum work underway and fix it. When we get that done, hopefully, the shows will come back, the numbers will come back and the dollars for the city of Springfield and for the state will come back,” Briney said.