State fairgrounds seek money for a makeover


John Slayton wants visitors to take in the sights when they step onto the 366-acre fairgrounds during this year’s Illinois State Fair.

“You can look in pretty much any direction out here and you’re going to see a need for renovation or improvement,” Slayton said. “It would be nice to have the Illinois State Fairgrounds back as a place that Illinoisans can be proud of.”

Slayton is the chairman of the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising funds for repair and maintenance projects at both the Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairgrounds. The foundation was formed in 2016, got into high gear in 2017, and has since been  trying to raise part of the estimated $180 million needed to take care of the deferred maintenance issues on the two state-owned fairgrounds. The foundation has raised approximately $100,000 to date, Slayton said.

The poster child for the need, and the state and foundation’s number one priority, is the 1901-vintage Coliseum Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. It has been closed since October 2016 when serious structural issues were discovered in the huge arena-type building which hosts horse and livestock events.              

“The Coliseum is the number one need, and it is probably at a price to fix of about $8 million,” Slayton said. “Hopefully that number can include some heating and ventilation work inside, which would make it a year-round venue for the fairgrounds, and for shows that are begging us to get it done so they can return there for events.”

The Coliseum repair is one of the two projects specifically named so far that will benefit from a $30 million capital appropriation for fairgrounds work passed this spring by the Illinois General Assembly. The Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation website also identifies the $2.1 million repair of the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds’ 1947-vintage Grandstand as an Illinois Department of Agriculture priority for foundation-raised funds.

Slayton hopes the $30 million state appropriation will be the kick-start for large donations that the foundation needs.

“We’ve had some generous gifts in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, and a very generous donor who contributes $2,500 per month, but we haven’t hit a home run yet,” Slayton said. “It’s been a slow process. I thought I’d have people calling me wanting to make donations, but that’s not been the case.”   

“It’s pretty much the same pitch over and over again, I get down on my knees and I plead with them to make a gift,” Slayton said.  “We are a very young organization, so to have what has happened in Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota, where they have received substantial estate gifts, those take time to get into your estate plans.”

“Hopefully, there are people who came to the State Fair 50 or 60 years ago and met their future spouse and had a family and their memories are vibrant,” said Slayton, a McDonough County native who spent much of his youth as a 4-H member exhibiting livestock at the State Fair. “We hope they will consider the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation in their estate plans.”

Illinois Agriculture Director and Fairgrounds Foundation board member Raymond Poe hopes the needed repair money can be raised soon, because it’s not just a question of state pride, it’s an economic issue. 

“While the fair is important to the department’s mission to promote our state’s number one industry – agriculture – the fairgrounds also serve as a year-round revenue generator,” Poe said. “Events that are held on the state fairgrounds not only generate revenue for the department, but create tax revenue for Springfield, Sangamon County and additional business volume for the area.

“That’s why we are grateful that the governor introduced, and the General Assembly approved, $30 million in the capital budget to help fund much needed repairs to the Coliseum, Multi-Purpose Arena and other various buildings in Springfield,” Poe said. “It is our hope that others will take note of the state’s commitment to fix and repair the fairgrounds and join our efforts by donating to the Fairgrounds Foundation.”

Except for the Coliseum and Multi-Purpose Arena projects that Poe mentioned, no one has publicly identified what other work might be done with the $30 million legislative appropriation. A Freedom of Information Act request for a list of such projects to the Illinois Capital Development Board (CDB), which coordinates all state-funded, non-road construction projects, was denied.     

“CDB is withholding the Department of Agriculture’s FY20 listing of capital project requests, since this listing is currently in a draft format,” the denial letter stated. “Final decisions have not been made as to when and in what order the projects will move forward.”   

The CDB did share a list of past and ongoing repair and maintenance work at the state’s two fairgrounds.

At the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, some of the numerous projects listed during the last 10 years include $1.8 million to replace water service and sewers; $162,000 and $309,000 for emergency Grandstand roof repairs on two occasions; $3.8 million to upgrade the fairgrounds’ electrical systems; $3.4 million to replace the Administration Building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; $666,000 to repair and replace the Multipurpose Arena canopy; $518,000 to upgrade roads throughout the fairgrounds; more than $1 million to replace roofs on various buildings and barns; $106,000 to repair the parapet wall at the Junior Livestock Building, a project that is still active; and $515,000 for an emergency roof replacement on Barn 13 directly across from the Coliseum.

The state also spent $682,000 to enclose the Warm-Up Arena adjacent to the Coliseum so some shows originally scheduled for the Coliseum could have a temporary home.

The CDB listing of projects on the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds during the past several years includes an emergency Grandstand roof replacement, $303,000; masonry and parapet wall replacement and repair, $1.1 million; Southern Illinois Center repairs, $123,000; Exhibition Building emergency roof replacement, $83,000; and tens of thousands of dollars in emergency storm repairs across the fairgrounds.

The Fairgrounds Foundation says that these state expenditures and foundation donations are investments that will see a return. They estimate that the Illinois State Fair has an annual economic impact of $86 million in Springfield, while the Du Quoin State Fair boosts the local economy by $6 million. The foundation says on its website that in 2016, non-fair use of the fairgrounds in Springfield totaled 527 event days with an estimated 175,000 attendance. In Du Quoin, facility use on non-fair dates came to 146 days with more than 69,500 attendees.

Those non-fair events and their local economic impact have taken a hit recently, especially since the Coliseum has been closed for nearly two years now.    

“Illinois has lost shows or shows have taken a 50 percent hit on competitors who come from across the state or nation,” said Paula Briney of the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois. “It is just a dismal mess that they have let the Coliseum and the barns get into such a state that we can’t use them.

“We’re behind, because a lot of the other states have either put state or private money into their fairgrounds and upgraded their facilities and maintained them,” Briney said. “The Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation is good in theory, and hopefully we will get some movement on that shortly.”

When talking about state fairgrounds, there is cultural value to consider along with the economic value. Landmarks Illinois listed the Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairgrounds in their annual Ten Most Endangered Historic Places announcement earlier this year. Frank Butterfield, Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield office director, said these agricultural exposition sites are important for current and future generations.        

“The Illinois State Fair is a place where people gather to celebrate and learn about Illinois’ industry, history and culture,” Butterfield said. “Saving the fairgrounds buildings makes a statement that we value our shared history as well as our legacy for the future.”

“This problem is several years in the making and will take several years to fix,” Butterfield continued. “As Illinois commemorates its bicentennial year, both a capital bill and private fundraising are needed to save the fairgrounds as places where we gather to celebrate the history and industry of Illinois. And funding maintenance projects will prevent more buildings from reaching the point where they need emergency repairs, which are more challenging and more expensive.”

The Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairgrounds were both listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, recognizing the fairgrounds’ historic integrity and national historic significance. 

A total of 63 separate buildings on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield were contributing factors in the nomination process for the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these key buildings include: Coliseum, 1901; Exposition Building, 1894; Poultry Building (Artisans Building), 1896; Dairy Building, 1903; Cattle Show Pavilion and Indoor Warm-Up Ring (Barn 13) 1909; Sears Bungalow, 1909; Main Gate, 1910; Sheep and Swine Pavilions, 1912; Horse Barns and Show Horse Barns, 1912–1913; Hobbies, Arts and Crafts Building, 1918; Grandstand, 1928; Cattle Barns and Sale Barn, 1928–1929; Emmerson Building, 1931; Illinois Building, 1949; Conservation World Structures, 1953–1959.

Some of the key historic buildings on the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds in Perry County include: Original Track, 1923; Horse Barns, 1937 – 1942; Other Barns, 1940; Hayes Mansion Residences, 1942; Administration and Main Stable Building, 1945; Concession Stands, 1946; Exhibition Hall, 1946; Grandstand, 1947; Racetrack, 1947; Main Entrance, 1948.

According to news releases distributed in 1990 after the fairgrounds’ National Register of Historic Places listings, the Illinois State Fair was founded in 1853 and the first four-day fair began Oct. 11, 1853, at a site one mile west of what is now the Old State Capitol in Springfield. For the next 40 years the Illinois State Fair was held in 12 cities, including Springfield, Chicago, Alton, Peoria, St. Trayla, Freeport, Jacksonville, Decatur, Quincy, Du Quoin, Ottawa and Olney.

In 1872, legislation organized the Illinois State Agricultural Society into the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which took control of the state fair. The Department of Agriculture realized that temporary fairs had become prohibitively expensive and that other states’ fairs could woo visitors away from Illinois if a permanent home was not chosen. Springfield was eventually selected as the fair’s permanent site.

The Du Quoin State Fair was founded in 1923 by William R. Hayes, a self-made millionaire businessman with a passionate interest in horse racing and racehorse breeding. From the start, Hayes intended the fair to grow into a major entertainment event.

Du Quoin’s reputation was clinched in 1957 when the prestigious Hambletonian Cup, the ”Kentucky Derby of harness racing,” was moved there.  The race was held at Du Quoin until 1980 and after that the fairgrounds hosted the World Trotting Derby, another highly regarded racing event.

Many visitors and participants through the years have their own personal histories closely tied to one or both state fairgrounds. Holly Spangler, is a board member and secretary of the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, exhibited at the Illinois State Fair as a youth, and now attends the annual event to watch her children exhibit.

“When someone is donating to the foundation, you’re not building a building or fixing a roof, you’re building the future for youth in Illinois agriculture,” Spangler said. “When I look around the State Fairgrounds I see a lot of kids learning huge skills that they are going to carry forward. They are meeting other people in agriculture, they are working in teams together, they are doing all sorts of things where you just see the future of Illinois agriculture being formed there.

“There are certainly opportunities for non-fair, year-round fairgrounds use. We could be using those grounds a lot better than what we do if the facilities would allow for it,” Spangler said. “That’s why we have a foundation, and why we are urging people, organizations and companies to support the future of youth in Illinois agriculture.”

Illinois Fair Foundation board members include Chairman John Slayton, Vice Chair Phil Farrell, Treasurer Chandra Roberts, Secretary Holly Spangler, and board members Grant Hammer, Robert Easter, Sam Madonia, Edward McMillan, Orion Samuelson and Raymond Poe.

Donations may be made through the foundation’s website,

David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.

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