Gallery: Era ends in flamesPublished 11:07am Monday, February 4, 2013
Officials looking to future after grandstand burn
It took less than an hour for more than 75 years of history to go down in flames Saturday.
Around 10:30 a.m., the Austin Fire Department started a controlled burn to demolish the condemned grandstand of the Mower County Fairgrounds.
Within minutes, flames engulfed the structure, billowing smoke into the Austin sky. About 20 minutes in, most of the roof had collapsed and tin sagged over the remaining beams.
“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said as the fire began subsiding.
For the county board and Mower County Fair Board, Saturday’s blaze was a necessary step of starting a new chapter for the fairgrounds.
“It’s sad to see the old structure go, but you know, it’s just not cost effective to keep,” said Fair Board President Neal Anderson, who described the day as bittersweet.
An engineer condemned the grandstand last July — about a month before the fair — due to dry rot, and repairs proved too costly.
“It’s not like we could just start replacing a board here and a board there,” Anderson said. “The base of it is getting to a point where it’s not safe, and above all we didn’t want anybody to get hurt.”
The next chapter for the grandstand isn’t far away. On Tuesday, the county board is scheduled to discuss building a new grandstand, and they will set a date to accept bids from construction firms.
The Fair Board members know what they’d like to see in the structure.
“We want a covered, similar-sized structure that’s going to be something we can be proud of,” Anderson said.
The Mower County Fair and the grounds are something to be proud of, Anderson said, and they attract people to Austin for more than one week a year.
“We use the facilities for a lot of other things, and hopefully this new grandstand will draw some other events,” he said.
Anderson and the board want to draw other rodeos, concerts and livestock events to the new structure.
For about 70 firefighters from more than eight departments, the morning started closer to 8 a.m. with a training burn inside the grandstand.
Shift B Commander Terry Petersen coordinated the burn Saturday for the Austin Fire Department after Chief Mickey Healey broke his leg, though the chief watched from his SUV.
Before the main burn, newer firefighters seeking certification trained in a room where pallets and straw were ignited.
“They’ll watch how that fire grows,” Petersen said. “They’ll also watch how the smoke and things start to build at the top, the different layers of the smoke.”
Petersen said the day offered valuable training experience for all involved.
But firefighters vacated the structure before the structure was fully engulfed. Except to start the fire, no one was inside during the main burn.
“We’re not going to be able to do much with this,” Petersen said before the demolition.
Firefighters sprayed the corners of the grandstand during the entire fire, largely to push the blaze inward toward two ventilation holes cut into the roof and to protect the beer garden and neighboring buildings.
Petersen said the fire department was glad to assist in the demolition, noting the fire was a cheaper means of demolition.
“It’s an opportunity for us to help out,” he said. “It’s cheaper this way.”
Most watching had rave reviews for the firefighters.
Austin resident Joe Davison watched from Eighth Avenue Southwest and listened to a scanner in his vehicle.
“The fire department, I think, did a great job … They must have done a lot of planning,” he said.
A grand spectacle
Only a small group was allowed inside the fairgrounds during the fire, but hundreds of residents drove to southwest Austin to watch. At least 40 cars parked along Fourth Avenue near the main gate. Davison estimated at least 25 cars parked along the Eighth Avenue, and a steady stream of cars drove by.
Davison summed up the sentiments of many watching the fire: “It’s quite the thing when you get to see it when nobody’s going to get hurt or anything,” he said.
Davison scoped out his spot at 8 a.m., as the fire departments began their training to film the burn from his vehicle. He estimated he took about an hour of video.
Like many who witnessed the fire, Davison has many memories of the grandstand.
“I’m a hometown boy, used to watch stock car races from up there in the stands,” he said.
Davison and others watching from the south didn’t see much of the flames, as wind pushed the smoke southeast.
Some had feared smoke would hang low to the ground and affect nearby houses, but those watching said that wasn’t an issue.
“I think the wind and everything was just perfect, because it just kind of took it up and over,” Davison said.
Jerry Adams, who parked a few cars down from Davison, agreed the south side was good vantage point.
“It was a safe place to be,” he said. “The smoke didn’t get all over my truck. It was a good view.”
Adams, a lifelong Austin resident, stopped at the fairgrounds Friday to take a few final pictures of the grandstand.
“I figured it’s the last time I’ll be able to see it,” he said.
Though he took pictures of the fire from his car Saturday, Adams still questioned why local officials didn’t recycle the grandstand’s wood and paneling.
Others doubted the entire demolition. One local resident, who did not wish to be named, questioned if the deterioration of the grandstand was bad enough to warrant demolition.
State Sen. Dan Sparks was inside the grounds during burn, and while it was bittersweet for him, he said it’s become more of a safety issue.
“Obviously growing up in Austin, I spent a lot of time in the grandstand,” he said.
Even though the grandstand is gone, it’s still a piece of Austin history. When he was younger, Anderson remembers watching Jesse “The Body” Ventura sing with his band at the site. In his time with the fair board, Anderson cites the school bus demolition derby as the largest crowd he saw, with about 2,200 people.
“There’s great memories,” he said. “A lot of people have watched the neighbor kids in the demo cars or on the motocross track, and of course everybody remembers the race track that used to be here for the stock cars. That was a huge part of Austin’s history, too.”
Renovations would have proved costly for many reasons. The building doesn’t meet current handicap accessibility and multiple other codes, and addressing those issues would have spiked the costs of a remodel.
“It was built in the ‘30s, and now the codes are different,” Anderson said. “If we touched it, all that would have had to been done, and it just made it cost-prohibitive.”
Still, Anderson remained steadfast in the belief that it was time for the structure to come down.
“We’ve had a good run with it, but it’s just got to go,” he said.
Anderson and the fair board, like many in the county, will now turn their attention to the county board and the push to have a new structure in place by this year’s fair.
“Right now, our biggest concern is to have some place to have our events during the fair,” he said.