Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) In a few short weeks, Heritage Timber will begin deconstructing the dated grandstands at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, and the county's contractors will race to construct its replacement ahead of next year's fair.

Commissioners on Thursday approved two contracts related to the project, including a $246,000 deal with Jackson Contractor Group to deconstruct the grandstands, and a separate $267,000 contract with A&E Architects to design a new facility.

Emily Brock, director of lands and economic development for Missoula County, said Heritage Timber will remove the roof, beams and dimensional lumber from the old grandstands for resale. Jackson will also salvage the bleachers, lighting and sound system for reuse in the new facility.

“We expect NorthWestern Energy to retire the electrical for us this week, when we'll officially submit to the city for a historic demolition permit,” said Brock. “We do expect to receive the historic demolition permit based on major structural integrity issues that make the grandstands unsafe to use.”

The existing grandstands are the third iteration of the facility since the fairgrounds was established in 1911, Brock said. Given their age, the county hired a safety contractor starting in 2015 to inspect the grandstands each year ahead of the fair to ensure the facility was structurally sound.

This year, the contractor said it would no longer inspect the facility, as it couldn't guarantee its safety. But given the historic significance of the facility, the new grandstands will have a similar feel, and it will sit in the same footprint.

“It'll be similar size and scale of its predecessors in keeping with the context of the original relationship of the grandstands to the historic and commercial buildings,” said Brock. “We do feel like it's the best scenario to maintain the historic context of the fairgrounds and how the grandstands were used.”

Given the short timeline before next year's fair – and with winter still to come – the county is hoping the city will approve the historic demolition permit quickly. The county hopes its contractors can begin the demolition work in the next two weeks.

The county also hopes the city expedites the design permit with equal expediency when the time comes.

“We hope to start in the next couple weeks. We'll continue to reach out to the city and ask them to move the permit along as fast as they can,” said Brock. “The reason why we're pushing for this is so we can get it built before the fair next year.”

The county has estimated the project's cost at around $5 million, and most of it will be covered with private funding. What public funding is used largely stems from revenue earned during the Western Montana Fair.

“We've turned the fair around and are now in the black. We're taking access revenue from the next 10 years of the fair to pay for the grandstands, and that includes sponsorship,” said Brock. “We've also raised around $500,000 in cash from private donors. And we've got an in-kind donation for all of the concrete risers. Those are the big pieces and it's not coming off a tax increase.”

Emily Brock, director of lands and economic development for Missoula County, said the new grandstands should be open by next year's fair. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Emily Brock, director of lands and economic development for Missoula County (pictured in 2017) said the new grandstands should be open by next year's fair. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

To help the project along, Bob Burns, market president of Stockman Bank in Missoula and chairman of the fairgrounds campaign, teamed up with Doug and Bob Bauer, the two owners of Missoula Concreted and Construction.

The family agreed to provide the concrete risers for the new grandstands as an in-kind donation. That portion of the project is valued at around $750,000 and earned the Bauer's naming rights. But instead of naming the facility after themselves, they included their long-time employee Dale Clouse.

As a result, the new facility will be named the Clouse-Bauer Arena. But even with their support, the project faces a fundraising gap of around $400,000.

“We're hoping to fill it with private donations before the construction contract can be signed,” Brock said. “One of the things we banked on when we did the first phase of redevelopment (of the fairgrounds) was that it would generate excitement and revenue for the fair so that future phases could be paid for by the users and by revenue. We're seeing that pay off.”