The Muscatine County Fair Board hosted their annual “Weekend for the Fair” fundraiser on Saturday, June 3. The board relies on the annual fundraiser to boost fair revenue, but they also use it to recognize donors and give updates on capital projects.
This year they announced plans to move forward with a new construction project to build a large activity center at the fairgrounds. The current County Activity Center needs major repairs and updates, and building new has been under evaluation for several years. The project is now becoming a reality. There are a lot of details in motion and this complex project will continue to evolve with full transparency to the public and stakeholders over the next 12 - 24 months.
“One of the features that sets our fair apart from other Iowa county fairs is our infrastructure,” said Tim Nichols, Chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee. “Our fairgrounds are listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, which is managed by the National Park Service. The Federal Government has identified the significant history of these grounds and the unique architect styles and features. A new activity center would enhance the grounds and better match with the historic style that we have worked hard to preserve.”
It’s no secret the current Activity Center has significant repair needs. A long list of needed repairs has been reviewed for several years by the fair board in order to determine the best path forward. Issues include water in the building due to grading issues, no kitchen, bathrooms that are not ADA compliant, odors issues due to needed plumbing updates, code compliance needs, dated interior design, no windows for lighting, and more. However, one of the biggest drivers for the upgrade is due to size.
“When we look at surrounding counties, and eastern Iowa in general, they have spaces that can accommodate events. Weddings, business meetings, graduation parties, family events, and conferences are all growing. We are losing these to competing facilities because our space is too small and extremely outdated,” said Nichols.
Nichols presented the crowd with timelines and estimated budgets. This will be the largest project to date on our infrastructure updates. Fair Manager Kelsey Meyers said there will be a fundraising campaign to help fund the project.
“We have to fundraise at least half of the money,” said Meyers. “We know there is a need, and we know this facility can cash flow, but to ensure success we need to be responsible about how much is mortgaged. I am leading the fundraising effort while the Building and Grounds Committee manages the construction side of the project.”
The plans to build a new facility have been under review since 2018. A special committee was formed to evaluate competition, assess the market, and build a financial model. Everything was put on hold when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Like other event centers, the fair saw a sharp decline in rentals. However, the market is seeing a big surge of pent-up demand post-pandemic.
“We are missing out,” said Nichols. “We need to launch this project to capitalize on the building needs during our annual fair and other revenue potential. The market is strong and there is not enough supply to meet the demand. Our research shows that this is not a one-time spike, but expected normal demand rates as we look into the future.”
For many years, the public has been asking about plans to update the current Activity Center or build something new.
“We frequently get questions about this project. We also get complaints about the current facility,” said Nichols. “The Activity Center is an eyesore and sits right at the entrance of the fairgrounds. There is no question we have lost rentals due to the appearance and inadequacies of the facility.”
Impact On Other County Facilities
Nichols said the goal of this facility is to complement the fair and other current County offerings and events that are currently leaving the fairgrounds.
“There are some great facilities in Muscatine County,” said Nichols. “Our plan is to compliment that offering with a large facility that can retain the events we are currently losing. When we look at the market, there is plenty of business for all of us. The more visitors we bring to Muscatine County and specifically our fairgrounds, the more the other facilities benefit."
The Fair Board has officially launched the project; however, they don’t expect to host the first event until sometime in 2024.
“This is a very complex project that will take time and detail planning to get it right,” said Meyers. “This is the most we have ever spent on one facility. We feel this is responsible given the market opportunity and the desperate need to do something considering the current Activity Center, but we need to be smart.”
Nichols said final design, architect plans for bid, selecting a contractor, and construction will take 18-24 months.
“The important thing is that the ball is in motion,” said Nichols. “We are meeting on a set cadence to keep things moving and have a timeline of events and tasks mapped out to keep us on track.”
The Fair Board plans to reveal more details at the annual Muscatine County Fair which will be held July 19-23. The tentative plan to vote on final design is at the August Fair Board meeting.
“We typically vote to approve new projects each year in August,” said Nichols. “Our plan is to finalize design and hopefully put the project to bid in the fall. Everything is tentative, but we feel pretty good about our timelines.”
Anyone with questions or wanting to donate to the project can contact Kelsey Meyers and the Muscatine County Fair Office.