Reimagining the fairgrounds

Planning for a year-round center of social and economic activity

Renovating the Illinois State Fairgrounds and putting the facilities to use year-round is one of the goals of The Next 10 planning document released in May 2021 by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL). Now a comprehensive plan is being developed for the fairgrounds.

The CFLL consulted with the National Association of Agricultural Fair Agencies to identify consulting firms with expertise to lead a planning process. C.H. Johnson Consulting, Inc., based in Chicago, was selected in May this year to complete an analysis and present recommendations by the end of the year. Their expertise is in strategic planning, market analysis and finance. The firm has experience working with state fairs across the country. The CFLL is leading this initiative, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and has committed approximately $200,000. The goal is to make the fairgrounds a more significant economic, cultural and entertainment driver for Springfield and the state.

The fairgrounds covers 366 acres and includes 165 structures. "People care about the fairgrounds, and it is used all the time – but rarely is all of it used all of the time," said John Stremsterfer, CFLL president and CEO. Many areas are underutilized, and deferred maintenance is a looming issue. "Planning matters," says Stremsterfer. "A comprehensive plan will bring greater cohesion and the ability to be more deliberative."

The master planning process is now happening in earnest. The project involves analyzing all facilities and infrastructure on the grounds, the current and potential economic impact, programmatic offerings and opportunities outside the timeframe of the State Fair and underused lands on the grounds. The final report will include recommendations for potential use of underdeveloped lands, priority facilities and infrastructure issues to address, partnership opportunities for economic development and operational issues to ensure long-term success and sustainability.

Charles Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Consulting, notes that all fairgrounds are different. The study will include comparisons with other fairgrounds. Illinois is unique in having its state fair administered by a state agency. Some fairs are operated by foundations or public/private partnerships. Johnson says Illinois' state fair and fairgrounds are a treasure, and there are tremendous opportunities to improve all areas of the grounds as well as enhance the "curb appeal" of the fairgrounds for the surrounding neighborhoods. Illinois has a strong equine and livestock market, and there are lots of related activities at the fairgrounds throughout the year. People will likely be surprised at just how much economic impact the fairgrounds has already, providing a foundation upon which to build.

Because there was no state capital budget for many years, deferred maintenance is a significant issue at the fairgrounds. Currently the state has committed over $50 million for capital improvements. The outside of the Coliseum was completed last year, and phase two is now underway to upgrade the inside, including a new HVAC which will enable the Coliseum to be used year-round. The multipurpose arena is receiving an $8 million upgrade, including a new canopy. Roads and roofs are being improved throughout the grounds. While these projects are having an impact, there is still much more to do. Johnson says the quality of what's happening with the Coliseum should be the goal for other improvements, which could put the physical grounds on par with those of surrounding states.

Lots of people and organizations have a stake in the future of the fairgrounds. Many service organizations are involved each year at the State Fair. The Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources are both headquartered at the fairgrounds, creating opportunities. The Illinois State Fairgrounds is the only state fair on Route 66, and a new sign at Gate 2 marks this connection. With the many agricultural businesses located in Illinois, there are opportunities for greater connections with Chicago and corporations.

The planning project team wants to know what the public thinks. Anyone who uses the fairgrounds and cares about its future is encouraged to complete the survey which is available at During the State Fair, a QR code with a link to the survey will be posted on benches throughout the fairgrounds and on flyers. The planning team will also host workshops and focus groups in Springfield this fall to seek public input.

Stremsterfer says he is proud of the CFLL for leading this planning effort to reimagine the Illinois State Fairgrounds as a year-round center of social and economic activity for the city and region. "Lack of planning hinders moving forward," says Stremsterfer. He says it is exciting to see what can develop when creative minds come together.

Karen Ackerman Witter is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. She grew up going to the Illinois State Fair every summer. A favorite memory is going to the 1968 grandstand show when The Who opened for her favorite band, The Association.

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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