Mapping the Future of the Fairgrounds

By Beacon Staff

Mark Campbell walked along the Flathead County Fairgrounds’ main road, pointing to uneven asphalt and muddy parking areas. Despite a successful fair week this year, there is still work to be done.

A self-acknowledged perfectionist and the county fairgrounds operations manager, Campbell noted that he would like to fix these flaws in order to make the grounds more welcoming.

“It takes money, it takes time,” Campbell said. “You just have to make it a priority.”

The Flathead County Fairgrounds have a deep history in the valley, used by community members in one way or another for more than a century. The grandstands overlooking the rodeo arena and horseracing track will celebrate their 100th birthday in a couple of years, Campbell noted.

As part of the goal to keep this facility viable in the modern world and self-sustaining in the future, Campbell outlined several major projects last week that could take place on the fairgrounds in the next few years and decades.

“The fairgrounds have been put together without much planning; it was built on need,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to think more strategically.”

To begin, Campbell explained an architect’s rendering of the fairgrounds with new vegetation and entrances. The plants would line the outside of the grounds, with trees, grass, vines and other landscaping touches.

The goal is to make the grounds welcoming by softening the exterior appearance, he said. Right now, passersby look into the fence and see dirt and the backs of buildings. It gives the area more of an industrial feel, he said.

“We’d really like to give it a different feel, not only that it’s cared for but welcoming,” Campbell said.

The renderings also include a new entrance at the intersection of Idaho Street and Meridian Road, which Campbell said would ideally be the main gate. It would be designed with wood and rock to blend with the Northwest Montana motif, he said.

The main drive at Meridian Road and Two Mile Drive would get an additional structure, like an arch, to help welcome people in as well. Another important piece of the new design would include a one-mile, paved path ringing the grounds for public use and vehicle access during events.

Part of this plan will take shape in April, Campbell said, when the state Department of Transportation begins work on Idaho Street along the fairgrounds’ boundary. Currently, all that exists there is a series of ditches and a grass path, Campbell said.

MDT has agreed to build a sidewalk running from Seventh Avenue West North to Meridian, Campbell said, and remove a section of the ditches. The county will be responsible for adding berms and landscaping, he said.

The landscaping project could occur within the next three or four years, Campbell said, though there is no cost assessment yet.

Last June, the fair commission suggested looking into the long-term planning for the grounds. The resulting workshop involved a design and planning company called Populous, which laid out a 26-step process to use the grounds more efficiently.

Campbell presented the workshop report to the Flathead County Commission in September. It includes the following suggestions:

• Enhancing the pedestrian mall

• Constructing a new food court

• Removing the horseracing track and barns and replacing them with parking areas

• Enhancing and expanding the trade center to attract more business

• A new, covered show arena, warm-up ring and horse barns

Campbell stressed that these recommendations are just that, and there is no current strategy to put these changes in motion. And there would be plenty of opportunity for public input on any changes, he said, which would take years to complete.

There are still small things to take care of, such as combining the bathrooms behind the grandstands and making them ADA accessible. But Campbell said his job is to keep seeking out efficiencies and funding sources, with a goal of eventually making the grounds financially self-sustaining.

“Will we get it all done? I don’t know,” Campbell said, walking along the grounds. “But I’ve got to try and I’m going to keep trying.”