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The Western Montana Fair of 2019 will have a brand new century-old look.

Construction is underway at the Missoula County Fairgrounds on a $3.9 million preservation overhaul of the Commercial and Culinary Arts buildings, which will be the centerpieces of a much-improved and restored fairgrounds in the coming years.

They are some of the most historic and most-used buildings in Missoula, and county officials want them to last for another 100 years.

A crew from Jackson Contracting, under the supervision of local architect and historic preservation expert Paul Filicetti of A&E architects, is working to get the buildings done in time for next year’s Western Montana Fair, which drew nearly 80,000 people in 2018.

Over the next nine months, workers will replace the exteriors with original-style siding and a sorely needed fresh paint job, replace the roof with long-lasting Eco-Shake roofing to resemble the original cedar, shore up the rafters, implement structural upgrades and pour a foundation in the Commercial Building.

The Commercial Building will get a new bathroom and ADA-access elevator, and the Culinary Building will get a lift. There'll also be a radiant heat system that can be turned on and off so the uninsulated Commercial Building can host events throughout the winter, along with a new fire-safety sprinkler system.

“It’s quite a project,” said fairgrounds director Emily Brock. “It’s exciting, though. They’re old buildings but they’re worth it.”

All the work is taking into consideration the fact that the Missoula County Fairgrounds Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The fairgrounds has been a cultural hub of western Montana for more than a century and the land was significant to Native Americans for centuries and remains so, which will be reflected in future interpretive signage and information.

“During our planning process, we’ve heard time and time again how important it is to the community that the fairgrounds stays in the center of the city and that it’s a place that connects our urban vibrancy and our rural heritage and brings people together,” Brock said. “You know, there’s just not that many places in town that can bring folks together that way and tell that story about our history and also host exciting events.”

Brock said it’s a misconception that the fairgrounds only gets used once a year. On top of the hundreds of events it already gets throughout the year, she expects two weddings every weekend once the buildings are refurbished.

The Missoula County Board of Commissioners purchased the 46-acre fairgrounds property in 1913 for $16,000 with approval from county voters. The Commercial Building was built in 1915, survived a fire at the fairgrounds in the 1940s, and still is used often throughout the year. The Culinary Arts building was built in 1937, and both buildings have the signature Craftsman-style architecture that will be rehabilitated. Gone will be the peeling white paint and green trim, because testing has shown that the original colors were white paint with black trim.

Brock said that the money for the project comes from the county’s general fund, and much of the cost is going to raising the Commercial Building so an actual foundation can be poured.

“This building has lasted for over 100 years, and we want to make sure it lasts for another 100,” she said.

The construction has unearthed hidden treasures, such as a hand-cranked canning machine patented in 1916 and giant solid beams from old-growth fir that will be used to construct new bingo tents and shade structures in a revamped plaza area.

“With historic projects, you never know what you’re going to run into,” Brock said. “So far all of our sort of surprises have been good surprises but you never know.”

By the 2020 fair, as long as funding comes through, Brock said the concession buildings will be torn down and constructed in a new spot and the grandstands at the rodeo grounds will be moved farther south to make the plaza much more open. There are also plans in the works for the Glacier Ice Rink to move to a spot farther south to add even more gathering room.

Plans are underway on a new multimillion-dollar learning center/butterfly house at the fairgrounds, new trails and a new eye-pleasing low rock wall with a less visible fence to replace the old chain link that currently surrounds the area.

This spring, WGM Group and A&E Architects compiled a detailed, 107-page Missoula County Fairgrounds Design Guidelines report that Brock and her team are working off as they implement the renovation project. Much of the costs for the overall project include digging new utility, water and sewer lines for bathrooms and other infrastructure.

For more information and a schematic plan, visit online at https://missoulafairgrounds.com/future/.

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