POLSON – It’s not always easy, maintaining a county-owned fairgrounds with no money from the county.

Yet when the Mission Mountain NRA Rodeo returns to Polson June 28-29, fans will find themselves seated in fully refurbished grandstands.

Thanks in part to a grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, Polson Fairgrounds Inc. is renovating all the walkways, steps and seating in the 285-foot-long, 2,000-seat grandstands.

“The only thing that didn’t get done was the roof,” says Una Rose Graham, secretary of PFI. “That’ll be another project for the future.”

The one nearing completion might not have gotten done for a couple more decades were it not for Montana’s Tourism Infrastructure Investment Program.

The program disperses money raised through the state’s tourism lodging tax, also known as the “bed tax.”

This year, $550,000 was handed out to a dozen entities across the state.

The Polson Fairgrounds received the largest single grant, $80,000.

The organization, which has leased the property on the Flathead River from the county since 1984, still had to come up with $40,000 on its own to complete the $120,000 project.

That they had after years of fundraising, highlighted by their annual Cowboy Ball.

“We’d slowly saved up to get it going,” Graham says of the grandstand project, “but we knew $40,000 wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Without the grant, we’d still be saving for it.”

The infrastructure investment program requires project applicants to have other sources for at least one-third of their proposed project’s funding requirements.

Competition was intense: The Department of Commerce received 30 requests totaling $2.3 million.

The dozen selected ranged from the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana, to the city of Shelby, which is constructing a park to celebrate the famous 1923 world heavyweight championship boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons.

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Polson Fairgrounds Inc. members have donated labor and equipment to help get the grandstands re-done.

“We’re a small group, like most organizations,” Graham says, “and everyone has really pitched in to keep costs down and have enough money to finish the project.”

While Lake County owns the Polson Fairgrounds, the official Lake County Fairgrounds are located in Ronan. Apparently even before 1984, what tax money there is for the purpose has gone solely to the upkeep and maintenance of the Ronan facility.

The Polson site was falling into disrepair when PFI took over, initially as a branch of the local Chamber of Commerce. Graham says she’s not sure any money exchanged hands for the lease; PFI, a non-profit, has used fundraising and volunteer work to maintain and operate the grounds for the last 29 years at no cost to taxpayers.

The Mission Mountain NRA Rodeo is one of Polson’s main summertime attractions, and the fairgrounds now also are host to the Indian National Finals Tour Rodeo, scheduled this year for Aug. 22-24.

The grounds are rented out for other purposes as well, and occasionally are used as an outdoor concert venue.

Whealon Concrete and T.S. Construction, both local firms, were hired to do the work on the grandstands.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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