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Portage officials: Grandstand restoration part of five year plan

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The art deco grandstand at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Portage was built in 1935. A local group called "Save the Grandstand" is working to raise funds to repair and rejuvenate the structure, in hopes the efforts will invigorate the county fair and provide a large event venue for the city.

Portage officials have a plan for the grandstand, but it is likely not to be renovated or refurbished for another five years.

The city of Portage owns and maintains the site where the grandstand has sat for 86 years. The grandstand was built in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era public works effort, the Works Progress Administration.

Portage City Administrator Shawn Murphy said the grandstand and other facilities near the fair grounds are scheduled to be renovated as part of a $25 million capital improvement project. This includes rebuilding soccer and softball fields by Veterans Memorial Field and rebuilding animal barns on the fair grounds.

“The grandstand is part of the five-year plan,” Murphy said. “The city is working with the Save the Grandstand group to fully restore the structure.”

He did not give any other details on the five year plan for the grandstand.

The Save the Grandstand group is holding an Annual Arts and Crafts Festival on May 22 and 23 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. They are expecting over 70 vendors at the festival which will also have live music, food, drinks and raffle prizes. The event is free to the public.

The groups hope is the arts and crafts festival along with an online auction will help reach its goal of $1.5 million. Since last fall the group has raised just over $12,000.

Save the Grandstand President Bunny Balk told the Daily Register the group started last fall to help raise funds to save the structure.

“So many people on Facebook were talking about how it has fallen apart and why the city isn’t doing anything about it,” Balk said. Twenty people were at the first meeting and the group continued to grow.

“We are very pleased to be working with the Save the Grandstand group,” Murphy said.

Paul Becker, President of the Columbia County Fair board supports the group but recognizes other issues with the grandstand including lack of use.

“One issue is that the grandstand is not well utilized,” he said. “We use it for one week in the summer and that’s about it.”

Becker said there are members of the Columbia County Fair board that are also members of the Save The Grandstand group. The fair board is helping the group with their arts and craft event.

“The city has done two studies to look at costs and options for the grandstand,” Becker said.

In 2018, General Engineering Co. did a study of the structure and surrounding fairgrounds. It concluded it would cost over $1 million.

The Save the Grandstand group has stated the updates will cost around $1.5 million but could be as high as $2 million. The 2018 study pointed out a number of high cost items.

  • Structural and accessibility improvements, $900,000 to $1.1 million.
  • New restrooms in the grandstand, which would have to meet federal standards for accessibility to people with orthopedic handicaps: $560,000 to $600,000.
  • A new roof canopy over the existing seating: $485,000 to $575,000.
  • A storm shelter below the grandstand: $130,000 to $160,000.

The main issue for the fair board is that they don’t control the grounds.

“The fair board has no say in the long term plans of the fairgrounds,” Becker said. “Our contract is for three years and that’s as far as our commitment can go.”

The city of Portage owns the grandstand and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has designated it as an historical site. Other historical sites in Portage include the Indian Agency House, the Portage Canal and the Zona Gale Home.

Murphy said this means commission members would need to approve the upgrades and make sure the structure retains the “historical character” of the original building.

Despite the steep climb, Becker has faith in what the group is doing.

“What Save the Grandstand is doing is important. Hopefully we can continue to help them to fund their project,” Becker said.

He added that the Columbia County Fair is planning on returning this year with a few differences from July 21-25 this summer. The fair has three events planned – a tractor/truck pull on Thursday night, Friday night will feature a demo derby and a Saturday night rodeo.

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