By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A week before the Great Northern Fair is slated to begin, county workers are assembling a new set of bleachers at the Hill County Fairgrounds.
The bleachers will be completed just in time to meet the seating demands of several popular events at the fair. Their construction comes as a relief to fair planners, who were faced with a daunting task earlier this year after the county opted to remove the former grandstand and two sections of bleachers that were falling apart.
A stroke of luck allowed the Hill County Fair Board to purchase replacement bleachers for about $40,000 - far less than initially anticipated.
"I would consider this a long-term solution," County Commission Chair Pat Conway said Monday, adding that the new structure should adequately handle the seating needs of most events at the fairgrounds even though seating at the arena will shrink by 600 seats.
Early estimates for the cost of replacing the grandstand and bleachers were between $300,000 and $500,000. The figure frustrated county officials and fair board members, who struggled to find a feasible solution to their grandstand woes.
It was initially unclear whether the county could afford to provide seating this year. The fair board considered a number of potential solutions, including raising taxes or borrowing money to buy new bleachers or leasing bleachers once a year just for the fair.
The solution was found in Malta, where a 1,350-seat aluminum bleacher frame lay in storage.
The fair board told fairgrounds manager Tim Solomon to negotiate with Malta officials for the frame. Solomon purchased the frame for about $30,000 from the fair board's repair and maintenance fund, Conway said.
When the wood arrives, county workers will attach wood seats to the frame. The fair board had hoped to purchase aluminum seating and walkways for the frame.
They "couldn't get here in time, so we had to settle for wood," he said.
The wood was purchased from Bear Paw Lumber in Havre for about $10,000, Solomon said.
The new bleachers have 600 fewer seats than the old seating, which could affect fair board revenue this year, Conway said.
All but one fair event - the demolition derby - don't usually sell more than 1,350 seats, he said. The derby usually attracts close to 2,000 people.
Despite the loss of 600 seats, both Solomon and Conway said they are pleased with the outcome.
The total cost of the replacement is "less than what it would have cost to lease them just for fair week," Solomon said, adding that a proposed multipurpose facility being discussed by local government and other leaders could make a good venue for fair events.
"My hope is that something like that would work out for us," he said. "Obviously that's a long-term goal."
The former grandstand and two sets of bleachers, which were more than 50 years old, were torn down after an engineering firm found they had weak support beams and severe water damage. The firm recommended in January that they be replaced.
"The structure is inadequate as a whole," the firm's report said. "Any further deterioration could cause catastrophic failure of the entire grandstand structure."
The County Road Department tore the grandstand and bleachers down in March. Two buildings, used by the VFW and the Eagles Auxiliary, also were torn down as recommended by the firm.
The two buildings were "definitely in really poor shape," Solomon said.
The Eagles Auxiliary building used to host bingo, an event that will not happen this year, Solomon said.
The VFW will use a mobile trailer for its food booth this year, Solomon added.