Even with Twister, Montana Fair is a Hard-to-Resister

13 Sep

This youngster enjoys corn-on-the-cob at the MontanaFair, Billings.

MetraPark officials in Billings, Mont., had their work cut out for them when the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena was gutted by a tornado less than eight weeks before the start of the annual MontanaFair, which took place Aug. 13-21.

A tornado ripped through Billings on June 20, Father’s Day, and hovered over and swirled inside the Rimrock Auto Arena for at least 12 minutes.

“The grandstand is in perfect order, but it spent 12 minutes scouring the inside of the arena,” said Sandra Hawke, marketing director for MetraPark. “It just broke through the roof and sat there for 12 minutes.”

The bones of the building remain intact and most of the soft seats are salvageable, but the roof was ripped out and other damage was done to the interior.

“Not a soul” was on the grounds June 20 and no one was hurt, although people nearby had video cameras and images of the tornado ripping off the arena’s roof can be viewed on YouTube.

The community rallied to help pick up the debris and 1,500 volunteers showed up instead of the requested 500.

“Once we came out and said, ‘We are not canceling the fair, we’re going to move ahead,’ the community gave us kudos for that quick and definite response,” Hawke said.

The community also showed support by attending the fair at almost the same rate as the year before, with the final number ending up at 232,657 compared to last year’s 233,015.

The loss of the use of the arena for the fair meant finding a place to hold the event’s three large opening weekend concerts, so Hawke contacted Tim Kohlmeyer of Theatrical Media Services in Omaha, Neb., who set MetraPark up with an outdoor stage on the track of the grandstand. Insurance covered most of the cost of the outdoor staging.

Jason Aldean opened the fair Aug. 13 with tickets costing $45, $35 and $25; the Scorpions played Aug. 14, $45, $35 and $25; followed up by Hinder with Finger Eleven on Aug. 15, $35 and $25. The budget for the entertainment buys was $350,000 plus production, Hawke said.

The grandstand has a capacity of about 6,200 and the concerts all averaged about 5,600, so the loss of the arena’s extra seats was not a problem, Hawke said.

Those were the only concerts planned for the fair; however, Hawke had booked Celtic Woman for the day after the fair closed. That show could not be converted to an outdoor production.

Hawke called the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman, Mont., which picked up the Celtic Woman concert. Hawke also had to cancel concerts by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who already were routed to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Ticket sales were under way for those appearances; a concert by Rodney Carrington was about to go on sale and did not. Carrington now is playing the Adams Event Center in Missoula, Mont., on Nov. 18.

As to what it will cost to repair the Rimrock Auto Arena, “Let me first preface that by saying we are insured up to $121 million, and we’re probably in the vicinity of half of that, plus a little money for lost business.”

Insurance also will help pay for the code upgrades that will be required at the arena, which was completed in 1975, 15 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated handicapped accessibility.

Charlie Smith and David Forkner, formerly of HOK Smith Forkner in Knoxville and now with the global design firm Populous, have been retained and will work with CTA Architects Engineers in Billings, Hawke said.

“Populous will return this week with concept drawings for consideration,” said Hawke, who noted that the designs will go before the three Yellowstone County commissioners for approval.

“Based on the outcomes of those presentations, we’ll be better able to adjust the timeline, but right now the target date (for completion) is sometime in March.”

In addition to doing what will be necessary to take the building up to code, “We hope to make a few enhancements,” Hawke said. “Instead of simply rebuilding, it’s a nice opportunity to make some updates that may not be covered by the insurance at replacement cost but would be logical to do in the process.”

Austin, Texas-based Mighty Thomas Carnival provided 33 rides on the midway, said co-owner John Hanschen, with the popular rides being the Century bumper cars, the Thunderbolt, Pharaoh’s Fury and the three-lane, 100-foot long Frederiksen slide.

The situation with the arena actually might have helped the carnival achieve a 2 percent gain over last year because the grandstand is closer to the midway, Hanschen said.

Pay-one-price, all-you-can-ride wristbands cost $20 or $2 off with a coupon, Hawke said, and were good either for afternoon or evening hours. There also was a “Buddy Day” that basically was a buy-one-get-one-free event from 6 p.m. to midnight.

Admission cost $8 for ages 13 to 64 and $5 for ages 6 to 12 and 65-plus, Hawke said. Gate revenues of $467,829 were on par with last year. “Our record was $496,781, in 2008, the year before the recession, so it’s a good report,” Hawke said.

The entire fair budget was about $1.2 million but with some cost overruns that will be covered by insurance.

MetraPark was four years into a 10-year naming rights sponsorship deal with Rimrock Auto of Billings. The deal will be suspended for a year and then resumed because of the time the building will be out of commission.

Next year’s fair dates will be Aug. 12-20, by which time the renovated arena should be up and running for several months. – Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: Sandra Hawke, (406) 256-2400; John Hanschen, (512) 282-4442

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