Big plans for future of the State Fairgrounds

Master plan provides a vision and a roadmap

The Illinois State Fair has a rich history dating back to 1853 when the first fair was held in Springfield. Multiple cities hosted fairs before Springfield became the permanent home of the Illinois State Fair in 1894. For the first time in this long history, there is now a long-term master plan for the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL) recently released the master plan, which identifies opportunities to increase year-round events, attendance and economic impact. Creating a vibrant Town Square, adding a hotel and constructing a new 200,000-square-foot multipurpose venue as a signature building are some of the big ideas in the plan.

click to enlarge Big plans for future of the State Fairgrounds
COURTESY JOHNSON CONSULTING
From the fairgrounds master plan, a conception of a daytime event on the “New Town Square.”

The Next 10 Community Visioning Plan for Greater Springfield, released in the spring of 2021, identified renovating and activating the Illinois State Fairgrounds as a priority. The stated goal was to make the 366-acre fairgrounds a more significant economic, cultural and entertainment driver for the greater Springfield area and state of Illinois. The CFLL funded the $200,000 planning process. Illinois-based Johnson Consulting was selected to lead the project based on the firm's extensive experience with fairs and the hospitality and tourism industry and its knowledge of Illinois state government.

During the two-year planning process, Johnson Consulting worked closely with the leadership of IDOA, interviewed vendors and stakeholders, conducted field research at the Illinois State Fair, engaged the public through surveys, researched other state fairs, especially in the Midwest, and worked with other consultants and subcontractors, including MIG, CD Smith, Hanson Professional Services Inc. and JGMA. Charles Johnson, CEO of Johnson Consulting, describes the master plan as a macro-study which identifies a series of potential projects.

While the Illinois State Fair has tremendous assets, site layout is inefficient and building designs are outdated. The Illinois State Fair is a loved institution but perceived as being somewhat downtrodden. The level of investment has lagged other similar facilities nationally. The report includes data comparing the Illinois State Fairgrounds to fairgrounds in Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa and Georgia.

Johnson says the initial priority is a big "green-up" and improving the aesthetics of the grounds. The plan proposes creating a "Town Square" south of the Midway, beautifying streetscapes, enhancing the curb appeal, creating a cohesive wayfinding system and improving connections with the surrounding neighborhood and the community.

IDOA Director Jerry Costello says the master plan refined the concept of a Town Square gathering space and how that can enhance the appeal of the fairgrounds. This builds upon improvements already underway. In the 4 ½ years Costello has been director under Gov. JB Pritzker, the IDOA staff has increased from 299 to 408. In addition, $58.1 million was included in the capital budget in June 2022 for improvements to buildings and grounds to begin to address deferred maintenance. "Governor Pritzker has done more for the fairgrounds than at any time since Governors Thompson and Edgar," said Costello.

The fairgrounds has 165 structures. These include the Exposition Building, built in 1894, the Grandstand, built in 1927 to replace the original 1896 structure, the Coliseum, Dairy Building, numerous barns, and a Multi-Purpose Arena constructed in 2000. IDOA and Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters are both located on the property, as well as a satellite office of the Illinois State Police. Deferred maintenance of many buildings is a big issue. Restrooms need significant improvements. The Exposition, Orr, Artisans and Illinois Buildings all need major renovations.

Johnson and Costello both remark that most people are unaware of the extent of events that take place on the grounds throughout the year, from horse shows to dog shows to weddings and more. The Coliseum is a major asset and one of the top horse facilities in the country. However, there are more opportunities to substantially increase year-round events. The Route 66 attraction, Adventureland, Happy Hollow and Conservation World all have potential for year-round events and programming.

The plan proposes two tiers of facilities – those that attract higher impact events and others that are more affordable and appeal to agriculture-oriented activities. A short-term priority is to remove pole barns and demolish the Jr. Home Ec Building. A hotel is proposed, subject to a detailed market analysis, and a new 200,000-square-foot multi-purpose venue. A racino – a racetrack at which slot machines are available for gamblers – could also be considered.

Funding will be the biggest issue – both operating and capital. Currently there are only nine full-time employees who operate the Illinois State Fair. A priority is to expand staffing and increase funding for marketing.

Costello says IDOA will initially look at implementing things that are the low-hanging fruit and can be done in-house – enhancing buildings and grounds, expanding connections with the Route 66 exhibit and improving restrooms. Funding will be necessary for larger-scale projects and will require a broader level of support. The plan recommends considering a dedicated funding source. Johnson says that finding ways to engage people from St. Louis and Chicago and expanding partnerships and sponsorships will be key to reaching the potential identified in the plan. He encourages the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation to play a stronger role.

Costello says the plan provides a comprehensive strategy for the future. John Stremsterfer, CEO of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, is hopeful and says the plan should lead to better outcomes, citing the significance of having a comprehensive plan for the fairgrounds for the first time. He says this will help state government prioritize investments that will have the highest impact. Johnson says the master plan for the fairgrounds complements plans for expanding the BOS Center in downtown Springfield and developing the Scheels Sports Park.

The Illinois State Fairgrounds Master Plan is online at https://cfll.org/Initiatives-Projects/The-Next-10.

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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