Ozark Empire Fairgrounds & Event Center officials are targeting November to begin construction on a $15 million multipurpose arena and youth agriculture education center.
That start is dependent on completing fundraising for the 93,000-square-foot building, said Aaron Owen, general manager of the fairgrounds. Beyond $5 million the project received in state funding, roughly $2.5 million has been raised through undisclosed private donations, and Owen said another $7.5 million is needed. He said the fairgrounds is currently seeking sponsors and selling naming rights.
“We would like to have it raised by the end of June,” he said, noting if construction is able to start as projected, the arena would be “mostly done” by November 2023.
Officials say the new arena would nearly triple the current facility’s seating capacity of 2,400 with a goal of attracting a larger variety of events.
The arena project is the second of a three-phase plan launched by Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in 2020. Phase I was construction of a $1.5 million, 45,000-square-foot multipurpose building, dubbed the Central Buildings Event Center. Ozark Empire Fairgrounds was general contractor for the open-air facility designed by architect Esterly Schneider & Associates Inc. It was completed in July 2020.
The facility houses livestock during the annual Ozark Empire Fair but has portable stalls that can be removed to allow it to accommodate other events, Owen said. It has previously hosted the BootDaddy Benefit Bash and the Corndog Kickoff, which introduces the fair’s annual entertainment lineup.
Phase III seeks to add 400 campsites to the fairgrounds. An original component of the third phase was building a new shower and restroom facility. However, Owen said that project was added into first phase work to better support the multipurpose building and future arena. Including remodeling work of one of the on-site barns, he said the fairgrounds has invested roughly $3 million in upgrades and new construction since the multiphase plan announcement.
The second phase received a boost last month when Springfield City Council passed a bill to hand off $5 million from the state’s General Assembly to the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation, which leases the land from the city. Owen said the entire amount will go toward the arena project.
When the arena was first announced in early 2020, the estimated price tag was $12 million. Rising costs for construction materials and labor have changed that total, Owen said.
“We have engineering going on as we speak and we won’t have final numbers until May, but we’re projecting the arena itself to cost $15 million,” he said, noting the building’s square footage and seating capacity of 6,800 is the same from 2020.
However, he said the youth ag education center would occupy more room on the lower level, expanding to 30,000 square feet from the original 20,000-square-foot plan.
BRP Architects is the project architect, and Owen said a general contractor is yet to be selected. Depending on the bid amounts, he said Ozark Empire Fairgrounds may serve as the contractor.
Aside from the Ozark Empire Fair, held each summer, the fairgrounds hosts dozens of events a year. Over 80 events are on this year’s calendar, on par with 2021, according to its website. Roughly 540,000 attended events last year at the fairgrounds, according to officials.
“We rent all of the facilities out at various times,” Owen said. “The fairgrounds itself, we put on 18 events that we produce or co-produce.”
Those include Ozarks BBQ Fest, the Lawn and Garden Show and Ozark Fall FarmFest. Owen said the North America Diving Dogs National Showcase and the Missouri Rodeo Cowboys Association Rodeo Finals are two examples of events that relocated last fall to Springfield amid COVID-19-related concerns in their previous out-of-town venues. Both will be back at the fairgrounds this year.
Owen said the new facility will bring in an even wider array of events than the current 2,400-seat dirt-floor arena. Those include trade shows, volleyball tournaments, motorsports and indoor festivals.
“We have a rodeo that sells out at around 2,000 seats. We’re just not big enough,” he said.
The arena was originally built in 1939 and partially rebuilt following a 1960 fire.
“It’s not very user-friendly and not very handicap accessible,” Owen said. “There’s just a lot of maintenance issues. It’s not conducive to large indoor events.”
A 2017 Missouri State University study calculated the annual economic impact of the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds and Event Center to be $29.7 million, incorporating events and new money brought to the area, according to Springfield Business Journal archives. Owen estimates the total now is closer to $40 million. However, he said MSU Darr College of Agriculture professor and department head Arbindra Rimal, who conducted the 2017 study, is on the verge of completing a similar one this month. Results should be announced by month’s end and will include the prospective economic impact by the future arena.
“It’s a huge economic factor for southwest Missouri, especially Springfield,” he said. “The new arena is vital.”
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