The underground electrical system at the Illinois State Fairgrounds is fixed, but even the fairgrounds’ staunchest supporters concede the aging facility might be prone to more breakdowns.

 

The underground electrical system at the Illinois State Fairgrounds is fixed, but even the fairgrounds’ staunchest supporters concede the aging facility might be prone to more breakdowns.

However, a year after dozens of events were forced to move or cancel by electrical problems that shut down the fairgrounds for more than two months, fair officials say they are ready for 2009.

In fact, all but one of the major shows affected in 2008 plan to return, according to an online schedule for this year.

“The Springfield RV and Camping Show moved, but it’s still being held locally (at the Prairie Capital Convention Center). It’s the only one (that relocated) among the big events. All the other recurring shows are coming back,” said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the fairgrounds.

Not that the fairgrounds is in mint condition. Roof repairs and replacement dominate a department list of “emergency” projects, including work on the Grandstand, administration building and firehouse.

But a report compiled last year by the state Capital Development Board identified a longer list of long-term improvements needed at the fairgrounds, ranging from replacement of plumbing fixtures to replacing the aboveground electrical system.

“Right now, there is no funding for that work,” said Squibb, who said the aboveground electrical system does not pose the same threat to fair events as the underground outage in 2008.

“If there was an outage, it would be an isolated problem. The mainframe (in 2008) was an outage that affected the entire fairgrounds,” he said.

The department offered a 25 percent discount on rental fees this year to annual shows that were forced to cancel or relocate last year.

Tourism and convention officials estimated the 2008 shutdown, which lasted from mid-February to the end of April, disrupted at least 70 events and cost the city more than $750,000 in lost business. It also cost the state $2.7 million to repair nearly 23 miles of underground electrical cable that were the source of the outage.

One of the harshest critics of last year’s shutdown was state Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican who said years of neglect had left the fairgrounds vulnerable to such major disruptions.

Poe said he is satisfied the fairgrounds is ready for 2009, but he said the problem of an aging physical structure can only get worse. He also asked the Illinois Capital Development Board, which oversees state facilities, for an assessment of construction and maintenance needs for facilities statewide, including the fairgrounds.

“I’m satisfied to the point that there’s been an evaluation ... but even our universities and all our other state facilities, the maintenance has really been lacking,” Poe said.

He added that he hopes the General Assembly will make progress on a state capital improvements bill if Gov. Rod Blagojevich is removed from office. The Illinois House voted 114-1 Friday to impeach the governor based on multiple allegations of corruption and abuses of power. The charges now go to the Illinois Senate for a trial.

“We’re getting ready to talk about the budget. I’m assuming we’ll be dealing with a different administration,” Poe said.

The Illinois Beef Expo, which held a shortened show in Bloomington last year, will be among the first of the major shows to return to the fairgrounds. The traditional four-day event is scheduled for Feb. 19-22. The show typically draws about 20,000 people from across the Midwest.

Show director Cimeron Frost said the group always preferred to return to the fairgrounds.

“It was kind of stressful last year, but the state fair did a good job. They’ve been really apologetic,” Frost said, who has been with the expo since it started more than 20 years ago.

“They’ve also done some things to fix up the facilities. They did a major washing and cleaning of the livestock center to clean it up and brighten it up,” he added.

Apologies and a $500 rental-fee discount were not enough to convince Dennis Johnston, owner of Peoria-based Events Ltd. The company has promoted the Springfield RV & Camping Show for 16 years.

“I can’t take the financial risk that they’ll be ready,” said Johnston. This year’s show is scheduled for March 27-29 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center.

Johnston recalled it was only by luck that a spot opened up at the PCCC after last year’s show at the fairgrounds was canceled.

“We turned that show around in seven days. Our gate was very substantial, and we ended up doing a fair amount of business for our dealers,” Johnston said, who also was critical of the lack of communication from state officials during last year’s outage.

“We’re at the convention center for a minimum of four years and hopefully forever. It just makes sense. They (the Department of Agriculture) said because they screwed up we could get $500 off the rent. Excuse me. That doesn’t even touch the paperwork lost last year,” Johnston said.

Gina Gemberling, director of convention sales at the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, also credited fair officials with working to win back shows lost in 2008. Last year’s losses were a reminder of the fairgrounds’ importance to the city economy, she said.

“We definitely look at the state fairgrounds as one of our top facilities. There are events that go on out there year-round,” Gemberling said.

Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or tim.landis@sj-r.com. Deana Poole contributed to this story.

Timeline of power outages at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

*Jan. 25. The first of a series of electrical problems are reported.
*Feb. 2. Outage forces postponement of the Sangamon County Lincoln Day Luncheon.
*Feb. 16: Then-Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Chuck Hartke announces all fairgrounds events have been postponed indefinitely out of concern for public safety. The announcement forces a number of major shows, including the Illinois Beef Expo scheduled for March, to scramble for new locations.
*Feb. 27: Contractors determine the problem is with nearly 23 miles of underground high-voltage cable and wiring installed between 1979 and 1985. Workers begin pulling lines from the ground to check each of five major electrical circuits serving the fairgrounds.
*April 1. HDR, an engineering and consulting firm hired to pinpoint the cause of the outage, reports “a pattern of typical age-related failures” caused by a breakdown of insulation and poor grounding.
*April 10. Contractors announce repairs are on track to meet a May 16 completion deadline. Initial estimates are that repairs will cost more than $1.8 million.
*April 28: Work is completed ahead of schedule; final cost is put at $2.7 million as result of additional emergency wiring.

Source: The State Journal-Register archives.