By Patrick Winderl
The Great Northern Fair Board must find ways to raise more than $500,000 to replace the grandstand at the Hill County Fairgrounds and the bleachers in the Bigger Better Barn.
The two seating structures were erected more than 50 years ago and are falling apart, the board said.
The group decided Monday night to demolish the failing structures and replace them with aluminum bleachers, a project the board expects to top $500,000. Grants, loans, a bond issue or some combination of the three are options being considered by the board to fund the project.
In the past, the fair board has opted to make repairs to the dilapidated grandstand, a task that has become increasingly difficult over the years.
"It was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery," said fair board member Julie Strauser. "And it makes it difficult to bring events to Havre when the grandstands are falling down around you."
The new bleachers will not be available for at least a year, the board said. Substitute bleachers will probably be leased to accommodate events until the new structure is complete.
The decision to replace the grandstand and bleachers followed an assessment that questioned the integrity of the structures.
In a report Jan. 14, Jay Springer of Milk River Engineering said he found weakened and failed support beams, water damage and poor construction throughout the grandstand.
"The structure is inadequate as a whole," the report said. "Any further deterioration could cause catastrophic failure of the entire grandstand structure."
On a scale of one to 10, Springer rated the structure a three.
The removal of the structures will begin as soon as all of the utility lines are shut off. The Hill County Road Department will be responsible for the project.
Financing the project will not be an easy task. The fair board does not generate enough money to afford a loan for the entire amount, the board said. The only grant the board has considered would cover less than 10 percent of the project's total cost.
The fair board and the Hill County Commission agreed that the best way to buy the new bleachers would be through a bond issue. Getting the public to approve it will not be easy, said Commissioner Pat Conway.
"The reality is it's tough to get people to vote a tax increase on themselves," he said at the meeting.
A bond issue vote could be included in the county's primary election of 2004, or delivered via a mail-out ballot, Conway said. Mail-out ballots typically receive better results, but are expensive, he added. Commissioner Doug Kaercher said a mail-out ballot would cost Hill County nearly $20,000.
Soil salinity is another issue that needs to be addressed before construction begins, the board said. Soil tests from the fairgrounds have indicated high salt deposit levels that could have contributed to the deterioration of the grandstand, Conway said.
"It is certainly something that needs to be looked at before construction begins," he said. "We cannot definitively say salinity has contributed to the damage, but it could be a fair assumption."
The County Commission and the fair board have taken precautionary measures to lower the salinity level at the fairgrounds, Conway said.
High water tables have been responsible for bringing underground salt deposits to the surface, so the county built a runoff ditch to allow water drainage, he said.
"The purpose is to try to get the surface water off as quickly as possible," he said. "It was intended to be a long-term project, but already you can see some vegetation growth where there was none before."
The fair board will wait to receive a more accurate estimate of the project's cost before making a decision on exactly how to raise the money.
The grandstand will be replaced with bleachers with a seating capacity of about 1,400, the board said. The bleachers to the east of the grandstand will be moved into the Bigger Better Barn to replace the bleachers on the south side of the barn. Bleachers with seating for 600 people will take their place.
The fair board and the County Commission held Monday night's meeting to get public comment about the decision to remove the grandstand. Representatives from the Havre Jaycees and the VFW attended.