A proposed multipurpose arena at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds would be capable of hosting indoor sports, including volleyball tournaments, as shown in an architectural rendering. (Photo courtesy of the Ozark Empire Fair)

Plans for a new multipurpose arena at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds got a boost from the state government, and $5 million will be put into action after a handoff Monday night from the Springfield City Council.

The caretakers of the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds have a three-phase plan to develop the fairgrounds, which will host the 86th edition of the Ozark Empire Fair July 28-Aug. 6, 2022. The plan includes construction of a multipurpose arena and youth agriculture education center, which “will be a true jewel in the crown of the Queen City,” according to the fair foundation’s website. The arena is to be built to host trade show events, indoor festivals, livestock shows, archery competitions, volleyball matches, rodeo events and other sports.

The arena carries an estimated price tag of somewhere between $12 million to $15 million. It would be 93,000 square feet, including a 20,000-square-foot education center and enough capacity for 6,800 seats, according to the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation’s website.

Summary

The Ozark Empire Fair Foundation aims to raise a total of $25 million, to include the new arena and education facility, as well as add-ons, such as camping sites, added restrooms and shower facilities, and upgrades to the existing multi-purpose building. The campaign got a boost from $5 million in pass-through funding from the state to the city of Springfield to the fair.

The Springfield City Council voted 8-0 on March 21 to pass a bill to hand off $5 million from the Missouri Office of Administration to the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation.

The city of Springfield owns the land where the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds buildings stand. The Greene County Agricultural Society, doing business as the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation, leases the property from the city on a long-term basis.

“This provides a means for the state appropriation of $5 million to actually get to the Ozark Empire Fair,” Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said. “Certainly, we’re very interested in the fair and its plans, and pleased to be a part of this process.”

Missouri House Bill 19 is a state budget bill passed in 2021 that featured $282.3 million in spending obligations. A total of $185.8 million came from federal funds. One of the 85 projects including in the spending bill is the $5 million to be put toward a building at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds.

Springfield City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader explained the financial maneuvering required of the Springfield City Council on March 7.

“Although the intended recipient is the fair board for these funds, the Office of Administration cannot disperse the funds directly to the fair board; they are required to disperse them to a local government entity,” Lewsader said.

State lawmakers skirted a state law that bars legislative earmarks by specifying that the $5 million would go toward “preserving and cultivating southwest Missouri’s rich agricultural heritage by supporting youth in agriculture” in a first-class county with a population of more than 260,000 but less than 300,000. Greene County is the only county in the state that fits that description.

“The city seemed like the logical government entity to accept the funds as pass-through funds, which will then be passed through to the Ozark Empire Fair board,” Lewsader said.

The Ozark Empire Fairgrounds inject an estimated $29 million into Springfield’s economy every year, with the fair serving as the centerpiece for a year’s worth of events and activities. (Photo courtesy of the Ozark Empire Fair)

Lewsader explained that the city council bill contains two agreements: an agreement with the Missouri Office of Administration to accept the $5 million; and an agreement for the city of Springfield to pass the $5 million to the Ozark Empire Fair Board as intended.

Longtime Ozark Empire Fair Board member Kent Hyde said the fair board and the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation are in the process of raising another $10 million to fund construction of a multipurpose arena.

“It’s basically at no risk for the city. It’s a good deal for the community, it’s a good deal for the fair, and we’re excited about the arena project,” Hyde said.

A campaign called “Grounded in Tradition, Growing Our Future” is a three-phase plan to raise a total of $25 million for infrastructure projects at the fairgrounds.

House Bill 19 also contained $6.5 million for the Jordan Valley Community Health Center to build a clinic for women and children, and $4 million for Missouri State University to expand the Darr Agricultural Center on Kansas Expressway.

In 2017, a Missouri State University study put the estimated economic impact of the Ozark Empire Fair Fairgrounds on the local economy at more than $29 million per year, with a calculation that includes a year’s worth of events, not just the fair in the summer. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fairgrounds drew an estimate of more than 600,000 visitors to Springfield over the course of a year.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger