And so the makeover of the Missoula County Fairgrounds begins.
County commissioners on Thursday are expected to approve a $196,000 contract for 202 new horse stalls at the fairgrounds.
They’ll replace the old ones on the backside of the half-mile race track, which is going by the wayside this spring as well.
By the time the Western Montana Fair rolls around in August, new sewer and water facilities will be in place. An elevator is to be installed to make the second floor of the historic Commercial Building compliant with the Americans With Disability Act.
“There’s going to be definitely a flurry of activity coming up in the next few months at the fairgrounds,” said Emily Bentley, the former Missoula City Council member hired by the county early last year as director of fairgrounds development.
Following the fair, the long-planned redevelopment of the fairgrounds that opened in 1914 is “definitely going to be full steam ahead,” Bentley said.
“It’s happening for sure now. It’s a lot. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but it’s so exciting. The fairgrounds are going to look different at the (2018) fair, but it’s going to look really different in five years," she added. "I think both the rural stakeholders and the neighbors … everyone is going to appreciate it.”
The new horse stalls will be used for rodeos and other equestrian events, starting with the University of Montana college rodeo at the end of April.
Deconstruction of the existing “totally decrepit and unsafe” horse barns will begin soon. In a request for action from the county commissioners, Bentley said that will allow the racetrack area to be re-graded to make way for a new livestock center, rodeo arena, ice facilities and 10 new acres of open space. The major improvements will be phased in over a number of years, in part contingent on capital fundraising campaigns by the fairgrounds and user groups such as 4-H, FFA and the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association.
Bentley said the rodeo arena and grandstands will be in their current place for at least a couple more years.
The county received three bids for the horse stalls, one for $280,000, another for $223,000 and the winning bid of $196,357.
The latter was submitted by Sankey Ranches, LLC, of Joliet. Ike Sankey is a veteran professional rodeo stock contractor who has produced the Missoula fair’s PRCA rodeo every year since 1995.
Commissioners Cola Rowley, Dave Strohmaier and Jean Curtiss will decide at an administrative public meeting starting at 10 a.m. Thursday in the county administration building on West Pine Street whether to approve the contract with Sankey. It calls for a down payment of 10 percent, or $19,635. Sankey Ranches has agreed to deliver the 202 stalls within eight weeks of receiving the initial payment.
According to Bentley, the money will come from the three mills, roughly $650,000, allocated by the county this fiscal year for fairgrounds redevelopment.
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“This first step is doing site work in the back. In order to do site work, we’re removing the track and the old barns,” she said.
All the new stalls will be put to use during the college rodeo April 26-30. After that there’s a team penning slated for June 22-23, sponsored by the Northwestern Montana Team Penning Association. The Bureau of Land Management has tentatively set June 28-July 1 for a horse training workshop. The fair’s 4-H horse show is slated for July 28-29, followed by the open horse show on Aug. 6, the day before the fair begins.
“We’ve been contacted about having more equestrian events, and we do plan to have more, though we want to be careful not to compete with Big Sky (Equestrian) Park,” Bentley said.
A preliminary schematic design recently completed by WGM Group shows five rows of barns running east and west near the southeast end of the fairgrounds. They’ll be roughly perpendicular to the high school track across the fence behind Sentinel High School. A large livestock center is to their north, and the future rodeo arena and grandstands will be adjacent on the west.
Bentley said the beauty of Sankey's Tarter brand stalls, each 10 feet square, is that they’re designed to be moved easily, and they might be when the final layout is determined.
The schematic design will be released for public comment this week and posted at missoulafairgrounds.com/future. It’s the next step beyond the fairgrounds master plan, which was developed by A&E Architects and the now-defunct fairgrounds advisory committee over the course of several years. That plan was approved by county commissioners in 2016.
The master plan was “totally conceptual,” Bentley emphasized.
“It’s still the same in the sense that we’re going to build with the buildings that are on it,” she said. “Now we’re doing the design phase and actually getting down to feet and inches.”
The west side of the fairgrounds along Russell Street is reshuffled in the new design.
Glacier Ice Rink will still grow from two sheets to three, but instead of being tucked in the northwest corner by Malfunction Junction, three parallel rinks and a retail and restaurant space are pegged for the southwest corner. A large building that will house the lion’s share of fair exhibits was penciled in that general area but has been moved north in the design draft to where the existing Glacier Ice Rink stands.
Bentley said architects who specialize in ice facilities advised there wasn’t enough space in the "Malfunction Junction" corner. It makes better sense in the new location near the YMCA and Playfair Park, already a recreation area.
Beyond the addition of an elevator, the Commercial Building will be significantly updated after the 2018 fair. Its sister structure, the Culinary Building, will remain in place, as will the elections and fair office on either side of the Commercial Building and the open carnival grounds to the north.
The new design shows another open area in the “Malfunction Junction” corner. The county extension office’s learning center and butterfly house have been repositioned in the northeast corner to replace a paved parking lot near the bus stop on South Avenue.