Nearly five decades ago, Jerry Marks joined a fairgrounds committee organized to tackle a burning question: What to do with the Missoula County Fairgrounds?

While it took 48 years, more committees, lots of planning and public discourse, that question was officially answered on Monday as Marks joined Missoula County commissioners and other dignitaries in sinking golden shovels into the dirt of a muddy horse track.

The brief ceremony kicked off the first phase of the property's long-discussed redevelopment.

“We've been through lots of struggles over the years,” Marks said. “This fairgrounds has a lot of use, and it's about to get a lot more use. It's going to enhance midtown. It's going to enhance Missoula.”

Commissioners last month adopted a resolution stating their intent to create a special district for the county fairgrounds. The move enables the county to bond roughly $19 million in improvements and pay it back over a 20-year period using funds generated from three mills levied by the county last year.

The funding will cover $1.4 million in utility work and several million dollars to renovate the property's historic buildings. Around $640,000 is dedicated to building a maintenance shop, $1.1 million for new concessions, and $1.4 million for site grading.

That site work is set to kick off in the coming weeks. Heavy equipment was positioned Tuesday on the defunct horse track, ready to grade the site for future construction of a rodeo arena and a new Glacier Ice Rink, complete with three sheets of ice.

“People talk about how slow government is, but it's slow on purpose to have the people involved,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “The public has been involved in this for lots of years, and lots of different user groups.”

While discussions around the property's future date back nearly five decades, those same conversations continued to linger in recent years. By all accounts, the planning process was slow and ongoing, and the current master plan underwent several iterations.

However, the county hired Emily Brock Bentley as the new fairgrounds director last year to move the process forward. Several projects will be completed by this year's fair, though Bentley and other advocates are looking to diversify the property's offerings beyond that single summer event.

“We have a duty to be stewards of the community resources that have been entrusted into our care, and to make sure our cultural identity is preserved and passed down to future generations,” Bentley said. “This will be a catalyst for investment in Midtown Missoula, where there's enormous economic activity bubbling just under the surface waiting to be uncorked.”

To help unleash that economic potential, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency awarded the county $1.1 million in tax increment financing earlier this month to fund a network of trails and walkways on the property.

The funding also pays for trail lighting and landscaping. The first phase of redevelopment aims to transform the property's blighted appearance.

“These fairgrounds were once on the edge of a small town, and they were a place to showcase our agriculture,” said Curtiss. “Now they're surrounded by a vibrant city, but they will continue to connect us to our roots.”