Agreement on need for grandstand study

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Durand Blanding spoke about years of grandstand history.

Everything else still on the table

Gregg Westigard | Staff writer

BALSAM LAKE – The one thing most everyone agreed on is that there needs to be an engineering study on the condition of the Polk County Fair grandstand.

The history of the 1909 county fair grandstand. – Photos by Gregg Westigard

The ad hoc committee on fairgrounds infrastructure, which met Thursday, Aug. 4, sent a recommendation supporting that study to the county board for action at the Aug. 15 monthly meeting. Other than that, opinions at the committee meeting ranged from doing everything to preserve the historic grandstand to building new bleachers. There was a bit of new information, that the grandstand project cannot be part of the county bonding package. About 15 members of the public attended the meeting.

The resolution going to the county board, No. 16-17, authorizes the spending of up to $21,000 for a structural evaluation on the design of repairs or restoration of the grandstand. That would allow the county to get a report on the actual condition of the grandstand. A preliminary engineering study last October, based on a limited site visit in September 2016, identified a number of unsafe conditions and structural issues at the grandstand. That study led to the immediate total closing of the grandstand. Since then county committees have discussed a range of future options without having an accurate report on present conditions on the structure. Resolution 16-17, introduced at the general government committee on March 9 and postponed by the county board monthly since then, would provide a starting point for grandstand options.

County Administrator Dana Frey told the committee that the county’s bond advisers have said that the grandstand project cannot be included in the planned bonding package, leaving the financing of any project open. He said there are other options for paying for the grandstand, such as using the county’s fund balance or taking a loan, but advised that some of these options would require supermajority approval from the county board, a two-thirds vote for using the county fund balance and a three-fourths approval for borrowing. Regardless of that, Frey said the county needs to know the costs and how much money would be needed. The county had been looking at including a possible grandstand project in that fall bonding package.

Discussions 

Three of the five committee members, Larry Jepsen, Joe Demulling and Brad Olson, were present, with Chris Nelson and Mike Prichard absent. They heard from a number of preservation proponents and from views from some fair society board members.

Local historian Russ Hanson said the grandstand was built in 1909 and is the oldest wooden grandstand in the Midwest. He said work has been done on the grandstand every generation. Hanson supported the engineering study but wants to keep the present structure unless the study says it is not repairable.

Bill Kurtz said his July 19 letter in the paper, which called for saving the historic grandstand for another hundred years, has had a good response, including a number of offers on donations from individuals and area businesses.

Norm Toensing said the St. Croix Falls Historical Society supports restoring the grandstand, adding that the even older Baker Building was restored and is a draw to the city. He said the grandstand holds memories for thousands and thousands of people over many years.

“Too much has been destroyed,” Durand Blanding said. “When it is gone, it can never be replaced. There is not another grandstand like this in the whole United States. I am relying on you to preserve the grandstand.”

“We have a gem,” Joyce McKinney said. “In Europe, people have respect and love for their history.”

Dale Wood, president of the fair board, said that correct information needed to be presented. He said that the most recent repair was putting some tin under the grandstand seating for smoking purposes and nothing more. Wood said there has been talk about the bad footings for years. He said that safety studies say that the top four rows of the grandstand are too close to the rafters and the bottom two rows are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Wood says he has heard people say that the grandstand should have been torn down years ago.

“The grandstand is a problem for us,” fair board director Janis Larson said. “We have problems with the steps and people tripping, with concerns about falls at the top. We must look at what is fixable.”

“We must do what is financially responsible,” fair board director Karrie Melin said. “I want to be a realist.”

Committee member thoughts

Larry Jepsen said the ADA issues are his biggest concern. He also said that if a new grandstand is built, it should all be done in one stage, building a grandstand with a roof. The roof is needed as a place for the public to get out of the heat.

Joe Demulling expressed concerns about the lead paint in the present structure, saying stripping the paint would be a big expense. He also said that the concession stands under the grandstand would take major work to put in shape. But Demulling would favor a roof.

Brad Olson said he has the opposite opinion. He said he would vote for bleachers that hold more people and are used more nights a year, but he can’t justify a roof. Olson said people sit out in the sun at ball games and horse shows. He said bleachers might cost $250,000 without a roof and $450,000 with a roof.

Future committee issues

Dana Frey suggested the committee take a broad scope beyond the grandstand and look at other capital needs at the fair. He said it could look at fuller utilization of the fairgrounds.

Jepsen said the committee should look at all the buildings, saying “The fairground is our problem.”

Frey added that the fair society puts in lots of money and provides assistance to the county.

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