Dane County and state officials have been working together for several years, along with representatives from World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Fair, to assess needs and find funding for new state-of-the-art barns at the Alliant Energy Center.
Now, those new facilities are a step closer to becoming reality.
World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Fair are the two largest events held at the Dane County Fairgrounds, home to the Alliant Energy Center. Their ability to grow has been hampered by the facilities on the 162-acre county-owned campus.
Gov. Scott Walker’s capital budget proposal, unveiled March 13, includes funding for new barns that would be used for livestock at the expo center during the two shows and for other events the rest of the time.
Once these new barns are on site, said some officials, it will make it possible for the grounds to attract other horse shows and livestock events.
The improvements would also ensure that World Dairy Expo would continue to make its home in Dane County.
"This is great news for Dane County, the State of Wisconsin and Wisconsin agricultural businesses," Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said.
"Partnering with the state on this exciting project means we will keep World Dairy Expo where it belongs - right here in Dane County."
More than a year ago he created a task force to assess the future of the Expo grounds. Some of the aging facilities were the first need pinpointed by the group.
The task force highlighted the fact that several of the cattle barns date from the 1960s and are nearing the end of their productive life. One of the cattle barns was added in 1995 when the Exhibition Hall was built, but even it needed upgrades.
Current plans include demolishing all the existing barns at the Alliant Energy Center and replacing them with two large, multipurpose buildings - one encompassing 200,000 square feet, the other 90,000 square feet. They will be used as barns during the cattle and equine events and could also be used for other events.
Under this proposal the state will fund half of the $18 million project while Dane County and private partners will pay the other half.
Pending state approval, construction could start this fall and be completed in 2014.
"One of the first things I heard after I was elected was that we might lose World Dairy Expo," said Parisi. "So I immediately started working to keep it here. The economic loss to the county, state and Wisconsin dairy businesses would have been enormous if World Dairy Expo left."
Each year the show attracts 65,000 visitors who spend on food, lodging and transportation while they are here. A consulting firm last year estimated that World Dairy Expo has an economic impact of over $50 million and supports 693 jobs.
Those figures don’t include all of the sales generated by business contacts made between visitors to the annual fall dairy show and Wisconsin’s agricultural businesses. Nearly 3,000 international visitors from 90 countries attended World Dairy Expo last year.
Jeff Lyon, Wisconsin’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, is a member of the task force and said the economic impact is undoubtedly far larger.
"We focus on $50 million but you know it’s a lot more. Some of those other numbers are just a little harder to get at," he said.
Lyon explained now that the proposal has been included in the capital building budget proposal, it will go before a subcommittee of the State Building Commission. Then the entire building commission will make a decision on the project – potentially as early as Thursday, March 21.
Then the proposal – along with all the other state building proposals - will be reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in April. The decisions made by those lawmakers will be folded into the full state budget and move on for a vote by the full Legislature.
Lyon said he has heard no opposition from legislators on this proposal. "Part of the discussion is on the impact of the state’s dairy industry. A lot of people understand the importance of the dairy industry to the state of Wisconsin.
"People realize how big World Dairy Expo is, not just for Madison or Dane County. It has huge benefits all across the state. Legislators realize that," he told Wisconsin State Farmer this week.
Lyon said this project involves a question of timing. The state only considers a budget proposal every two years and the fact that this proposal is getting into this biennial budget means that it has the potential to get done sooner rather than later.
This proposal marks an evolution in the thinking of the task force, said Lyon. The first proposal had a price tag of $28.2 million and included about 35,000 square feet of additional space for the Exhibition Hall, as well as new barns, he said.
Prioritizing and refining their recommendations led the task force to focus on tearing down all of the old barns and replacing them with these new large barns that could also be used for other purposes.
"Everything now in the barns is aging and in poor condition," Lyon said, "and the buildings right now can’t house all the cattle."
The proposed new barns would not only replace the old barns, but would also eliminate the need for the 100,000 square feet of tent space that must be erected on the show grounds for each World Dairy Expo.
Two of those three tents are used as barns and the other is used for cattle sales events during the show. Once the new barns are built and tents are no longer needed, nearly 700 parking places would be opened up.
PREMIER DAIRY EVENT
"The thing that makes World Dairy Expo a premier dairy show is that it is a huge commercial show that has the latest and greatest innovations for dairy farmers, but it is also a world-class dairy show with top genetics," Lyon said. "Without the cow show it becomes just another trade show.
"It has both and that is what makes it such a premier, unique event."
Lyon has served on the task force since Parisi convened it and said in their phase-one deliberations they looked at some improvements that could be made to bring the facilities up to date – including the current barn upgrades.
Now the task force is in a second phase, looking at ways to tie the fairgrounds campus into downtown venues, host bigger events and tie into other facilities like hotels and convention centers.
"It’s a much bigger process than just figuring out how to get new barns. It involves a lot of different people in this collaboration."
The 162-acre campus is next to land owned by the city of Madison, some of which is used as a dog park, except during the larger Alliant Energy Center events.
Mark Clark was general manager of World Dairy Expo for five years and recently left to become executive director of the Alliant Energy Center
"We feel that if cattle exhibitors are going to bring their cattle 30 hours cross-country or if people are going to fly 20 hours to get here that they deserve to come to first-class facilities," Clark told Wisconsin State Farmer last fall in his role with World Dairy Expo.
"We’ve got a world class event here and we need a world class facility."