Construction begins on arena at Ozark Empire Fairgrounds; Can Springfield win bidding wars for events?

Published: Nov. 17, 2022 at 6:34 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2022 at 7:07 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Springfield is getting a new multi-purpose arena at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds that’s targeted to be finished by September 2023. Area leaders hope the $25 million facility will attract more regional and national events, although the competition in attracting those events isn’t just about having excellent facilities.

But the new arena will undoubtedly be much more appealing to potential organizers than the old 2,200-seat livestock arena that dates back to the 1960′s. That building has now been torn down to make way for the new 99,000-square-foot, 6,600-seat facility with a Youth Ag Education Center in the arena’s lower level.

“I raise cattle and have two little boys,” said State Senator Lincoln Hough. “Each year, they get a steer, and when you walk through these barns during the fair, there’s something special about seeing a young man or woman taking pride in getting up every morning to do the work. There’s a feeling of satisfaction as a father to see that in your kids, and something like this is going to be a game-changing environment for them.”

Hough’s comments came at Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony, where many civic leaders expressed excitement over the new addition.

“The fair has always been a hidden gem for Springfield,” said Dr. Jeff Gower, the President of the Ozark Empire Fair. “But with this arena, it will no longer be a hidden gem. It will be a star for the whole region to rally around.”

“It will be transformative,” said Springfield Mayor Ken McClure. “The city council has two priorities: quality of place and economic vitality. This fair has fit into that for years, but it will be even more so now.”

“This arena will be utilized by every single person in Greene County for generations,” said Greene County Commissioner John Russell. “And hopefully, it’s not needed, but if it is, it will be used in partnership with the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management as an enhanced crisis space.”

The list of possible events that could be held at the arena is extensive: trade shows, indoor festivals, livestock shows, motocross, roller derby, rodeos, archery, wrestling, volleyball, and cheerleading competitions.

“It’s fantastic,” said Springfield Sports Commission Executive Director Lance Kettering. “With over 6,000 seats, it will allow us to bring in additional sporting events.”

Including those that couldn’t previously be held at other venues.

“It’s got the perfect footprint for USA BMX’s Indoor Race Series,” Kettering explained, pointing to the new arena’s flexibility to retract seating sections. “BMX is an Olympic sport, and their national headquarters are just down the road in Tulsa. So this facility will enable us to bid on hosting one of their events.”

But bidding to get those events could be a challenge. The Springfield Sports Commission only has a budget of $250,000, which covers everything from salaries to bids to marketing. One of their primary goals is to attract Missouri state high school championship events. Their successful sponsorship bid to bring in the state high school basketball tournament for the last six years was $80,000 annually.

“When the re-bid came up, we put in a bid for $100,000 annually,” Kettering said. “Columbia bested us. And it is even more competitive when it comes to cities bidding against each other for civic events. And there’s always a key component of ‘What can you do for me in terms of cash sponsorship opportunities, what grants do you have available, and will you provide your venue free of charge?’ What happens a lot of times is the sports commissions, or CVBs, help underwrite those events by helping with the facility costs and other things.”

That $100,000 bid that lost out to Columbia would have been 40 percent of the Sports Commission’s yearly budget, so the only way to compete in bidding is to get money from other businesses and organizations.

“We are in the lower percentile nationwide in terms of our budget related to our population size,” Kettering said. “So if we aren’t able to garner the support externally, we wouldn’t even bid on it.”

And while the Springfield Sports Commission is hoping to increase its budget to remain competitive, the Ozark Empire Fair is hoping to do its fair share to attract events.

“We’ve got a sales team which books events year-round,” said Casey Owen, the Ozark Empire Fair Operations Manager. “In everything we do, we are a 100 percent private entity, and we run on our own funds. Our goal is to get more people here and get more heads-in-beds for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. When we get a four-to-five day event here, it’s also four-or-five nights for thousands of people coming to town who are eating and drinking and having a good time.”

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