History hangs on: Preservation, heritage at center of debate over fair's future
History hangs on: Preservation, heritage at center of debate over fair's future

When western Montanans first gathered for a fair, they talked about the same old things:

Mining. Ranching. The rascals in territorial government. The massacre on the Little Big Horn a couple of months earlier.

Maybe, just maybe, things have changed since 1876.

These days, as folks try to come to grips with the future of the Western Montana Fair, the notions of preserving the fair's history, heritage and tradition keep bubbling up.

"Nobody likes change. I don't like change. But sometimes you can't stop it," Charlie Deschamps said.

Deschamps sat on a bench in front of the fair office, a building recycled from a World War II detention camp at Fort Missoula. The Commercial Building, built a couple of years before World I, loomed over his head.

He comes from one of the oldest families in the valley, a line that dates back to the time of the first fairs.

Deschamps is also on the fair board, a defender of the embattled plan to tear down most of what stands on 47 acres in increasingly urban Missoula and to build a new, year-round fair and exposition grounds.

It's still on the drawing board, but the plan already has two casualties. Fourth-year fair manager Scot Meador resigned in July. Fair board chairman Buck Smith called it quits Friday, midway through the fair.

After studying the plans developed by architects and the fair board, county commissioners gave their official stamp of disapproval in a letter to the fair board in mid-July.

The opening lines of the fair's 2006 master plan mission reads: "The Historic Missoula County Fairgrounds Complex offers a safe, inviting destination for the public. Situated as an integral part of Missoula and Missoula County, the 'Fairgrounds' preserves the legacy of our heritage."

It's taking a beating on the history and heritage front, much to the delight of another fair board member and staunch defender, Kim Latrielle.

"There've been some great, great suggestions that we would have never thought of, and this thing has generated some great discussion, which I think is good," Latrielle said.

Preservation issues weren't on the front burner when the board compiled its want list.

"None of us are historians. So we were thinking we're preserving history by keeping the Commercial Building," Latrielle said.

She changed her mind when half a dozen of the city's leading historic preservationists showed up at the fairgrounds four weeks ago to examine the architect's rendering.

Not only was the Commercial Building the only one salvaged in the plan, it was shunted off to the side, they told her. Not only was the historic racetrack gone, but there was no reminder it had ever been there.

The drawing they saw, preferred unanimously over two others by the fair board and county commission, showed a pattern of straight lines and right angles, as opposed to the "chaotic thing that people have grown to love," said Dan Hall of Preserve Historic Missoula.

"They were saying: 'We know you can't keep every building, but even the footprint of the way we walk, the way gatherings happen (are gone).' So it's bigger than just the Commercial Building," said Latrielle, who has met with presevationists a couple of times since.

Bill Nooney has some thoughts on the matter.

A fair board member for 38 years and emeritus (non-voting) member the past six, Nooney has fought these battles before.

He said he tries to bite his tongue, at least in public, because as a racehorse owner and a longtime advocate of the sport, people think all he wants of the Missoula fairgrounds is a return to racing.

Not true, he said. What he wants most is something that will "keep the fair atmosphere and, back to my old term, our history and heritage."

"It's the combination of all the activities here that have made this work through the years," said Nooney. "It's not just the racing, or the rodeo, or 4-H, or the carnival. It's the combination of all the things that satisfy the people in this community, that they've loved forever. And they still do."

A new fairgrounds, without a racetrack and with a price tag of $22 million to $23 million and climbing, won't cut it, Nooney insisted. The public won't bite when it's asked to approve a bond two Novembers from now, even if that bond is in the $5 million to $8 million range to which county commissioners said they'd agree.

Nooney wasn't on the board in 1955, when - after rebuilding a fairground ravaged by fire in 1941 - county commissioners voted 2-1 against floating a mill levy to pay for the 1956 fair. Fair board president J.L. Kellogg, vice president E.L. Swift and the other three board members promptly resigned.

The fair was resuscitated the following March, when the commissioners agreed (again by a 2-1 vote) to appropriate $15,000 to it. It's been held every year since.

Nooney was around in 1974.

That was the year a fairgrounds master plan committee, after 20 months of study, recommended moving the grounds to Fort Missoula.

"I was on that committee," Nooney said. "Lud Browman was county commissioner and they wanted us to come up with a place to put the county fair. There was a guy from the parks department on there. It wasn't fair people, I don't think, except for me."

The proposed site is now Larchmont Golf Course, a county-owned facility.

"A perfect spot, because you had access and egress from three sides," Nooney said. "But once we presented it to (the commissioners), you never heard a thing after that. It died."

Nooney was very much around in 1989, when another master plan was developed. It called for substantial repair and replacement of facilities on the existing grounds. A general obligation bond of $8.5 million was requested of Missoula County voters.

It failed - a combination of poor presentation and mail-in ballot snafus, Nooney said. But he thinks the plan deserves another look.

First, a telephone survey of county taxpayers asked if they preferred to spend "approximately $8 million" to update the grounds, or $22.5 million to move them to a site south of town on Highway 93, or, finally, to let them deteriorate. Roughly

53 percent chose the $8 million update.

Nooney said the '89 master plan could be implemented now. It called for rebuilding and expanding a grandstand that would seat 5,000 people, roughly 1,500 more than the bleachers and grandstand held at the time.

"Then you'd take out the whole concession row and fair office, and put the grandstand there with concessions underneath, facing both in and out, and some nice bathrooms," he said. "Leave the track, and if you never run, you put a building back where the (racing) barns are, or tear the barns down and use it for parking for other events. If you do race, you'd bring in portable stalls."

The '89 plan called for refurbishing the Commercial Building, "which forms the major feature of the fair and captures the historic flavor of the fair." A 27,000-foot exhibit hall would have been built west of the current Commercial Building.

Now, Nooney said, the latter building could be "the size that your bond issue would allow you in dollars and cents to do."

"I think," he concluded, "that fits more into what the commissioners are looking for, to do something within a budget and maintain our tradition of the fair."

That's fine, argue promoters of the current plan.

But how do you make the whole thing pay for itself? They're charged with making the grounds a viable exposition grounds summer, fall, winter and spring.

Thus, the $11-million exhibition hall, 350 feet long and 250 feet wide.

"Then all year around we have the building to bring in huge trade shows, conventions, banquets, the PRCA rodeo circuit finals," Latrielle said. "Billings every year holds the state wrestling tournament, and we can't even bid on it because we don't have the mat space in Missoula. That's a huge, huge dollar amount."

Equestrian events, livestock shows, monster trucks and motorcycles Š "all kinds of things like that," she said. "And there are a lot more things that we haven't even thought of."

When people approached Latrielle at an informational booth at the fair last week, they were usually mad, she said.

"I tell them all the same thing. I say first off you need to understand it's conceptual, that everything on this can be taken off and moved, or changed," she said.

Then she asked how they would change the plan.

"Half of them say horse racing," she said. "If they say put the horse racing track back there I say, 'OK, then help me out. If that's back there, not knowing the future of horse racing, how in the winter, how all year round, will you generate revenue, with half the grounds used for that?' "

When they question the expense of the multi-event hall, "I say, 'Well, if it wasn't paid for by taxpayer dollars, if it was totally paid for by (private funds), what would you think?' They say, 'Well, then it'd be OK.' "

In the end, Latrielle said, "the most important thing is people want a gathering place. They want a place to come where they've come for years. A lot of them aren't looking at compromising, and by time we're done, there's some compromise there.

"They see it's more important to keep (the fairgrounds) here than getting it 100 percent their way. That's the give-and-take I think we've been hoping for. I think that's what leads to a good plan."

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