The Clark County Fairgrounds will begin hosting water and cross country events at its lake this summer, which tourism officials say could pump millions into the Springfield economy in the future.
Later this year, the fairgrounds will host the 24th annual Solar Splash on June 7 to 11, a five-day solar boat regatta previously held in Dayton and known as the world championship of intercollegiate boating. The race has seven different categories, including sprint, endurance and maneuverability.
Fairgrounds Executive Director Dean Blair believes Springfield will become known for its boat events in a few years, he said.
“We honestly believe this has the potential to be the differentiator for what makes this Springfield different from the other 40 Springfields in the United States,” Blair said. “It’s going to be huge for tourism and I think it’s going to be huge for Springfield. I think it will play an integral part to help define what it really becomes.”
Earlier this month, Springfield City Commissioners approved a rezoning for the lake at the Clark County Fairgrounds, paving the way for boat and cross country races.
The fairgrounds will spend about $88,000 to make upgrades to the lake and the fairgrounds, Blair said, which includes grants from the FirstEnergy Foundation and the Springfield Foundation. Recent upgrades include a shelter house, a new fire barn and repairs to the bleachers at the grandstand.
Phase 1 of the project will cost about $1.3 million, including a parking lot, an entryway, terrace seating, a ramp for boat shows, a boat launch and an announcer’s tower, Blair said.
A large portion of trees will be cut down on the lake to create better viewing areas for spectators, Blair said. The fairgrounds also wants a corporate partner to purchase naming rights, he said.
Solar Splash was held at Eastwood Park in Dayton the past three years, said Technical Manager David Luneau, who also serves as a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The free event will include 16 teams and draws hundreds of people, Luneau said.
“They offered us a good deal, a good lake and a good venue so we decided to try it out,” Luneau said.
The event is also sponsored by Cedarville University. The school’s Yellow Jackets team won the event last year.
The fairgrounds has also begun cutting a course to host cross country events, Blair said. While the boat events get more publicity, the fairgrounds will likely host more cross country events on a regular basis, he said. They’re hoping to attract local and regional high school and college events, he said.
At the fair this summer, a 5K will be held on the cross country course to raise money for the Salvation Army, Blair said.
The boating event will bring in visitors from all over the country, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors’ Bureau Vice-President of Destination Marketing & Communications Chris Schutte said.
“It’s going to be visitors in from all over the country,” Schutte said. “Any opportunity to expose Springfield to a wider audience is obviously great.”
The lake will allow Clark County to attract national events it wouldn’t be able to host without it, Schutte said, such as boat races and boat shows. They’re not held in very many places and most of the events are held on public waterways, he said. The lake is private and controlled by the fairgrounds, Schutte said.
“It’s a unique drawing card potentially,” he said.
The fairgrounds and the Champions Center are clearly the No. 1 tourism drawing card in Clark County, hosting events such as the Antiques Extravaganza, the Car and Parts Swap Meet and Car Show and horse shows, he said. Boat races, especially national formula boat races, could make the fairgrounds an even bigger draw, Schutte said.
“It could have an impact into the millions of dollars easily,” he said.
FIVE NEWS-SUN MUST READS
By the numbers
1.3 million: Cost of the first phase of development for the lake at the Clark County Fairgrounds.
$88,000: Amount of money spent on upgrades to the fairgrounds this year.
16: Teams competing in the 2017 Solar Splash competition.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about the proposed water events at the Clark County Fairgrounds since the story first broke in the fall of 2016.