Portage panel told fairgrounds grandstand repairs could top $1 million

October 3, 2018

Fixing up the historic art deco grandstand at the Columbia County Fairgrounds easily could cost $1 million – money that neither the city nor the fair board has.

“Sticker shock” would be a mild description of the Portage Parks and Recreation Board’s reaction to a presentation Tuesday from Gayle Mack, construction lead for General Engineering Co. of Portage.

“There is a big price to preserve this,” said Board Member Mark Hahn. “The question is, is it really good justification to spend that money, knowing it’s going to last for maybe 25 years?”

The grandstand – a concrete block structure featuring fluted columns projecting from the walls, triangular panels and a curvilinear parapet – was built in 1935 as a project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration, according to the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory.

It is listed on the local historic register, which means the city’s Historic Preservation Commission would have to issue a certification of historic appropriateness for any work that might be done on the structure.

That’s why the commission’s chairman, Doug Klapper, and vice chairman, Kyle Little, were at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Where are we going to get that kind of money?” Little asked. “It’s a big, big ticket.”

Draft stage

Parks and Recreation Manager Dan Kremer said Mack’s analysis of potential work on the grandstand, and the work’s cost in today’s dollars, is part of a “draft” stage to help the city, which owns the fairgrounds, in its budgeting process.

Mack emphasized the cost figures represent what the project would cost if it were done today. Count on the cost being higher in the future, she said, depending on what happens with steel tariffs.

The projects being considered, and their costs, are:

Structural and accessibility improvements, $900,000 to $1.1 million.New restrooms in the grandstand, which would have to meet federal standards for accessibility to people with orthopedic handicaps: $560,000 to $600,000.A new roof canopy over the existing seating: $485,000 to $575,000.A storm shelter below the grandstand: $130,000 to $160,000.

The biggest problem with the grandstand’s structural condition, according to Mack, is the ever-growing number of cracks from annual freeze-thaw cycles.

Ff the cracks are repaired, federal law requires the structure also be renovated to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The cost figure for the structural improvements includes repairing the concrete, filling the cracks, painting the entire grandstand, new railings, six new flagpoles at the top of the seating area and electrical work.

It would not include the restrooms, which Mack said would not be required under federal law, because there are accessible restrooms on the fairgrounds within 500 feet of the grandstand.

But the renovation almost certainly would have to include installing handicapped-accessible parking near the grandstand. There is currently no motor vehicle traffic in the grandstand’s vicinity during fair time.

Fair perspective

Paul Becker, chairman of the Columbia County Fair Board, said the grandstand shows at the most recent Columbia County Fair attracted about 500 paying customers each for the tractor-truck pull and flat-track motorcycle racing, about 1,500 for the rodeo and about 2,000 for the demolition derby. Ticket prices average about $10, depending on the event, he said.

Because the grandstand seats 1,540, extra bleachers had to be brought in for the demo derby, he added.

But none of the proceeds from admissions to fair events go to the city, Hahn said.

“Yes, but you still see all the fuel, all the people and all the restaurants to bring in money,” Becker said.

Hahn asked whether the city could use the grandstand for other events outside of the fair, such as music concerts – and whether such events might raise enough money to help pay for fixing up the grandstand.

Becker noted that there have been events, such as Portage FFA-sponsored tractor pulls and all-terrain vehicle events held there. At one time, the venue also hosted Portage High School football games.

“It’s a beautiful facility that should be used more,” Becker said.

Klapper said that, to his knowledge, there are no grants available for restoration of historic structures like the grandstand, although there may be foundations that offer financial assistance.

Other options

Another option to consider, Mack said, is tearing down the grandstand and building a new one.

It would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to tear down the grandstand, she said, including grading but not including asbestos or lead abatement.

Building a new free-standing steel structure would cost between $675,000 and $800,000 if the job were done today, she said.

Kremer noted that tearing down the grandstand and building a new one would require sign-off from the Historic Preservation Commission, because it is a city-designated historic property.

Hahn said he values the city’s historic buildings, but said he wonders if the cost of fixing the grandstand is justified, considering it’s used mainly for the Columbia County Fair and brings in little or no revenue directly to the city.

Kremer said any discussion about tearing down the grandstand and building another is premature.

“To be honest, that would be a whole other meeting and agenda item to talk about that,” he said.

The Historic Preservation Commission was scheduled to take up the matter of the grandstand at its meeting Wednesday.

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