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Contingency plan forms as fairgrounds waits for grandstand inspection

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | June 9, 2024 12:00 AM

Constructed in the 1930s, the grandstands at the Flathead County Fairgrounds have played host to thousands of spectators throughout the decades.

Two weeks ago safety concerns closed the covered grandstands along with the newer infield bleachers. Since then fairgrounds officials have been working to obtain a structural inspection of both to ensure structural integrity, while also creating a contingency plan in case those seating facilities remain closed. 

Fairgrounds manager Sam Nunnally plans to have a contract before county commissioners this week that would begin scheduling of the inspection. Reopening will depend on inspection results and whether repairs are necessary. 

“We’re hoping to have expedited timing,” he said of the inspection. “Hopefully that can happen before the fair.” 

The structural inspection is expected to provide information about whether the grandstands and infield bleachers can be reopened for use. The north bleachers, which had already been scheduled for replacement, have shown signs of deterioration and will remain closed.

The arena is used for about 30 event days throughout the year. Some don’t require seating and are continuing as planned.  

But others like the rodeo and concerts during the Northwest Montana Fair in August use the full seating areas. Roughly 6,300 tickets are available for the rodeo. 

In a typical year, staff would be planning for the next year’s fair but are now focusing on creating options that would allow the concerts and rodeo to happen in a modified fashion on the fairgrounds if the seating areas must remain closed.

Working on a contingency plan has become the priority in the last few weeks, Nunally said. 

“For centuries fairs have been where communities have come together to show and sell their wares,” Nunnally said. “They’ve been education centers to show the amazing things we can do and later became entertainment centers where we call come together.” 

Planned for the fair are two concerts – one rock’n’roll band on Tuesday and a country act on Wednesday. If the grandstands are still closed, the concerts would become festival style seating in the arena with the stage on the east side. Rather than tiered ticket prices it would become general admission. 

While this is a viable option, Nunnally says it’s not preferred. 

“What we've always enjoyed here is we have a broad selection of people that come to our concerts and that means everything from kids all the way up to great-grandma and great-grandpa and everybody else,” Nunnally said. “And so I want to make sure that I can still have a good facility for everybody and going to a festival-style seating has limitations. It's more difficult in festival-style seating because people have to bring their own chair.”

For the rodeo, a temporary arena with bleacher seating would be constructed on the north end of the fairgrounds. Early estimates for that option range up to $125,000, but would depend on a number of factors. 

“We would have to reduce the tickets so we would have a loss compared to the regular rodeo, but at this point I don’t know what that would be,” Nunnally said. “We’re still hoping we might get a major sponsor to help pay for it.”

The county has been planning to replace the north bleachers in its capital improvement plan and completed an inspection of the bleachers in February as part of that process. The plan calls for spending about $560,000 to replace the bleacher section which includes 1,750 seats. 

As part of that replacement, the fairgrounds must also reconstruct the area where the bleachers are and officials are looking at a potential larger buildout that would include as part of the project a new press box, new concessions area, water and light towers. That has been estimated to cost up to $1.5 million. 

Nunnally said the cost includes several items that were added optionally that can be removed to provide savings. 

For updates on the fairgrounds arena, visit https://flathead.mt.gov/department-directory/fairgrounds. 

Deputy Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.





   Fans watch the bareback riding at the Northwest Montana Fair & Rodeo in 2020. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)