Flathead County

With Grandstand Rated in ‘Fair Condition,’ Northwest Montana Fair, Summer Concerts to Proceed

After an emergency safety closure earlier this year, a recent inspection of the century-old, covered grandstand deemed the structure fit for continued use after some repairs

By Micah Drew
Spectators seated in the Flathead Valley Fairground's grandstand in this 2014 Beacon file photo.

The schedule of shows expected to fill up the covered grandstand at the Flathead County Fairgrounds this summer will go on, following some repairs to enhance the integrity of the century-old structure. On July 8, construction crews will begin the first phase of work to extend the life of the venue’s primary seating area, “ensuring it remains a community hub for many years to come,” according to a county press release, which announced that the Northwest Montana Rodeo and summer concerts will proceed as planned.

In May, county officials announced the closure of the covered grandstand, and the north bleachers, after a preliminary safety inspection found significant signs of deterioration of the wooden framing and beams. The inspection came as part of a long-planned project to demolish and rebuild the north bleachers, which will remain closed this summer.

Fairgrounds Manager Sam Nunnally said in an interview that the structure will be removed after the Northwest Montana Fair concludes in August; it will be replaced with a new aluminum and steel bleacher set.

On June 13, specialists from Martin Consulting Engineers conducted a detailed onsite visual assessment of the grandstand and its supporting framework in accordance with the International Code Council (ICC). The inspection report concluded that the observable portions of the structure are in “fair condition,” and although there are no areas considered “an immediate life safety concern,” several sections require immediate repairs and maintenance to eliminate potential hazards and maintain the structure’s integrity.

“We got the inspection report back and there are a few things we absolutely have to make safe in order to use the grandstands again,” fairgrounds manager Sam Nunnally told the Beacon. “There’s a couple things we need to address — bracing up the north wall of the grandstands, a little bit of bracing underneath the roof itself. Not enough to cause a structural question, but enough that we want to make sure there’s nothing falling on people.”

The list of immediate repairs includes replacing loose and split bridging elements found throughout the grandstand canopy; bracing the north wall of the grandstand, which leans outward from the structure; and closing or rebuilding an office storage room that has “failed structurally,” but does not impact the grandstand’s operability. The report also notes that the vomitorium stairs leading to the office building inside the grandstand are deteriorated to the point of requiring full replacement and should be closed until repairs can be made.

Nunnally said there is a tiered checklist of work to be done with next month’s construction addressing the most immediate concerns, followed by projects to tackle within the next two years.

According to the report, a number of high-priority repairs will be required to address structural concerns within the next year, including replacing rotted and split two-by-four boards that support the structure, installing support elements where they are missing, replacing boards throughout the seating area, replacing the stair treads to meet ICC standards, and rebuilding the railing walls at the base of the grandstand.

“Safety is the number one thing for us, and we wouldn’t let people back in the grandstands if that was a concern,” Nunnally said.

Per the ICC, all “existing bleachers, folding and telescopic seating, and grandstands” require annual inspections. According to Nunnally, however, he cannot find any documentation of a structural inspection for the grandstand or the north bleachers.

Over the last decade, the fair board, on which Nunnally served prior to becoming fairgrounds manager, understood the 60-year-old north bleachers needed to be replaced and began saving for renovations. That reconstruction project kicked off over the winter, which was when the extent of the grandstand deterioration came to light.

Nunnally is confident the repairs will go forward as planned and hopes that renovations over the next few years will keep the historic structure preserved for generations to come.

“The fair started in 1902, so for 122 years this is where people have come together as a community. We have multiple generations coming to these fairgrounds every year and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” Nunnally said. “I would hate to have our historic grandstand no longer part of Kalispell and this community. If we can keep them and preserve, that’s what my goal is. But at the same time, I have to respect that if we can’t do that safely, we can’t do it at all.”

The latest updates can be found on the Flathead County Fairgrounds website.