SPRINGFIELD — Visitors to next month’s Illinois State Fair might notice some evidence of ongoing construction, part of a major investment to update some of the fairgrounds’ oldest buildings.
A series of renovation projects totaling $58.1 million in costs are underway at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Those working closely on the projects say the investment could help bring more tourists — and economic activity — to Central Illinois.
“There’s a trickledown effect when you talk about an economic impact,” said Illinois State Fair Manager Rebecca Clark. “We have 366 acres of great destinations and endless possibilities here on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, and it really has the potential to be a giant economic impact.”
“The Illinois State Fair drives millions of dollars in economic activity to the city of Springfield and to Sangamon County every year,” added Scott Dahl, director at the Springfield Illinois Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Clark said the investment is necessary after years of deferred projects.
Historic — and costly
The fairgrounds are registered as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of the historic structures have begun to deteriorate over the past decades.
The Coliseum, the fairgrounds’ epicenter, was built in 1901. Renovations on the structure began in 2019. Phase 2 of the project will resume after the 2022 event and will cost an estimated $16.3 million.
Historic buildings will always require regular maintenance, Clark said, but what ultimately matters is whether or not the state can pay for the projects.
“There are countless projects that we need to work on,” she said. “It’s a matter of funding.”
Aside from the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, a private, charitable corporation that helps fund improvement projects on the state’s fairgrounds, most funding comes from the state legislature.
Clark attributed current projects to a renewed interest from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration in maintaining the fairgrounds.
“For too long, our fairgrounds didn’t reflect the magic of the Illinois State Fair — so my administration is turning that ship around,” Pritzker said in a statement earlier this month.
“The $58 million in infrastructure improvements we’re bringing to the Springfield fairgrounds … is an investment in the Illinois families that make this celebration what it is,” Pritzker’s statement continued. “I’m proud to improve the fairgrounds for generations to come.”
The Illinois State Fair sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. In 2021, over 472,000 people attended the fair, making it the second-highest attended fair since the Department of Agriculture began formally tracking attendance in 2014.
The renovation projects, which kicked off earlier this spring, include multi-million dollar renovations on the Coliseum and Multi-Purpose Arena (MPA) buildings, road construction, and a number of roof and HVAC replacements across the fairgrounds.
Renovations will continue through the Illinois State Fair from Aug. 11 to 21 and into the fall.
Fair visitors will notice some ongoing construction this year. The MPA will be closed for construction, with events previously scheduled to take place in the building either rescheduled for September or on hold until the 2023 State Fair.
‘Drop in the bucket’
While the $58.1 million price tag might seem excessive to some, Clark said it’s just the beginning of what is needed.
“It all adds up, but at the same time, it’s all still just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need out here at the State Fairgrounds,” she said.
The fairgrounds are used for much more than just the State Fair.
“We have countless events every single day out here at the fairgrounds. It is utilized 365 (days a year). It’s not just the 11 days of the fair,” Clark said. “We have events that we cannot accommodate right now because we lack some of the infrastructure that is needed.”
Fixing up that infrastructure could prove beneficial for the entire state.
Dahl said the coming years will likely bring a major influx of visitors to Illinois, largely because of the upcoming Route 66 Centennial in 2026.
“We know that certainly from an international standpoint, 2025 and 2026 will be very, very big years for international travelers visiting Route 66, so we want to be ready for them. And we believe the Illinois State Fairgrounds will play a major role,” Dahl said.
The current renovation projects will have an impact even farther into the future, Dahl said.
“It really puts the Illinois State Fairgrounds in a great position for the next 20 to 30 years,” he said.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS: Journey back to the Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Happy Hollow
Heinhold Hog Race
Aerial view of Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Coliseum
Chester White gilt pig
Auctioneer Merrill Anderson
Sale of champions
Shave and a haircut
Illinois Department of Agriculture
Arts and Textile Building
Contact Taylor Vidmar at (217) 421-6949. Follow her on Twitter: @taylorvidmar11.