The first steps are underway for a major renovation of the aging Northwest Florida Fairgrounds in Fort Walton Beach.
On Monday, local media were given an extensive walking tour of the 20-acre fairgrounds property by Okaloosa Commissioner Trey Goodwin, Tourism Director Jennifer Adams and Fair Association Manager Brian Sparling.
- The group provided an inside look at the current state of the site and initial plans for upgrades and improvements to revitalize the facilities.
The property was purchased by the county earlier this year from the City of Fort Walton Beach for $4.05 million in bed tax funds, with a commitment to keep it for public use. The fairgrounds have served the community for decades, but many parts have deteriorated over the years.
“If we don’t keep it for the community, we can’t reinvent it anywhere else that I can see,” Goodwin said. “Here you are in South Okaloosa County with this type of facility on roughly 20 acres…You couldn’t go and find this anywhere else in our county.”
The tour commenced at the original but now closed front entrance. For decades, visitors would purchase their tickets at the booths and enter the fairgrounds property. Now, the entrance has moved to the west side of the building.
Inside, Commissioner Goodwin walked the group through various interconnected buildings that were added on over the years. Walking into the 12,000 square foot event hall constructed in the 1970s, Goodwin recalled how he attended All Sports Association banquets there as a child with his father. It was there that he remembers listening to Bobby Bowden give a sermon at the podium.
- While a bit rough around the edges due to wear and tear, he said the large concrete and steel structure can be refurbished into “a really nice facility.”
The outdated kitchen area was noted as needing heavy renovations. Goodwin said that despite the facility’s age, “those that have been operating this have done a really good job of doing the best they can with what they’ve got available.”
Out back, the open field used for fair rides and vendors contains some worn outbuildings constructed decades ago that may not be salvageable. Despite the dated structures, there is a lot of history just sitting out there.
- Two of the buildings were constructed in the 1980s when 10,000 Cuban refugees were housed on the property from the Mariel Boatlift exodus. The refugees lived on the property for about 10 months.
- Not too far from those buildings is an old stage that Dolly Parton allegedly performed on many decades ago.
As you walk through the thousands of square feet of building space, it is clear that some will need to be torn down. But Goodwin said the primary structures have potential for renewal.
One example is a large room currently used for art shows and events like roller derby. Upgrades to aesthetics and amenities will enable more white tablecloth events, while still accommodating staples like the Fair and gun shows.
According to Goodwin, loud outdoor concerts (like Dolly) are less suitable than in the past due to more nearby residential development. But he said the goal is keeping the fairgrounds’ characteristic uses while making it attractive for more events.
According to Tourism Director Jennifer Adams, the sales team at the Convention Center has already been out on the property and are working with Brian Sparling to identifying what type of groups, meetings, events and fests they can bring fairgrounds.
- “One of the things at the convention center is we’re outgrowing the facility for cheer groups,” she said, a testament to the growing event. “We would want them to stay here [in the destination] and come here [to Okaloosa] and have another facility and these buildings have been a key part of that.”
Agricultural facilities related to 4-H were also viewed, reflecting the site’s original purpose decades ago. Goodwin acknowledged that the agricultural component of the fairgrounds is smaller today due to urbanization, so the advisory committee will consider its future role.
Goodwin said master planning for the property should be complete within a year to determine purposes for each area. Work would then be done in phases as funding allows over an estimated multi-year timeframe.
The newly formed volunteer Okaloosa County Fairgrounds Advisory Committee is also providing input after an initial September tour. The group will meet again Nov. 1 to start refining ideas for improvements.
Goodwin thanked the City of Fort Walton Beach for selling the property to the county, which will enable the fairgrounds to remain for public use, building on its long history as an event venue. Standing in front of a marquee sign that read ‘A dream come true. Better fairgrounds for you,’ Goodwin added…”It says ‘for you,’ but really it’s for the community.”
- “It doesn’t matter if you live in the city, if you don’t live in the city. It doesn’t matter if you live in the South Okaloosa or North Okaloosa,” he said. “This place can have a purpose for you, and that’s making it a better fairgrounds. We’re not taking away its characteristic as a fairgrounds. We can build off what’s been done by others who came before us, but really make it something special and really, ensure that this place is going to be here for the long run.”