CHIPPEWA FALLS — When the heavy rain came down Saturday, Aug. 28, Wisconsin Sport Show Fall Edition promotor Lisa Gill was relieved she had made the decision to bring the event back to the Chippewa Valley Expo Center in Eau Claire.
"We had about 5,000 people (attend the show), and I think the rain really helped," Gill said.
In 2019 and 2021, the sport show was held at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair grounds. (It was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.) The spring sports show stayed in Eau Claire. During the two years the event was held in Chippewa Falls, Gill used the space for an outdoor range, dog water-diving shows and lumberjacks. However, Gill opted this year to bring the event back to Eau Claire, precisely because of the uncertainty that comes with weather.
"Our long-term plans are to stay in Eau Claire," Gill said. "Logistically, it is better to stay in one building, under one roof. The weather really was a factor with the vendors we have. (The outdoor location) was a lot more work and a lot more risk factors."
Gill said it would have been disastrous if the event had been at the fairgrounds this year because of the heavy rain throughout the day.
"I don't think many people would have shown up," she said.
Rusty Volk, the fairgrounds director, said that when the rain began last weekend, he was glad the sport show had opted to change locations.
"I thought all weekend, thank God she didn't have it here, because she would have lost her shirt," Volk said.
Not only did the Northern Wisconsin State Fair grounds lose the sport show this year, they also lost the Big Rig Truck Show, which moved to the Rock Falls Raceway in Eau Claire. That event was held at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair grounds 2017-19 and in 2021.
Volk understood the reasons why the events opted to leave the grounds for different host sites.
"When we started these events, we've been supportive of their needs," Volk said. "It may not be the best fit for them to have a big fairgrounds. Each event had their own concerns. It've been working with them and saying it's risky to invest in entertainment, to have dog jumping or lumberjacks."
In 2019, the Big Rig Truck Show included a Demo Derby on the infield, between the main stage and grandstand. However, the show wound up tearing up the grass.
"I wasn't going to allow the Big Rig Truck Show to tear up our infield again," Volk said.
The truck show is now under new ownership. Volk said he believes the Rock Falls Raceway was a better location because they can hold races there.
"That's a much better venue for them," Volk said.
The Blues Festival, which had been at the fairgrounds in 2017 and 2018, relocated in 2019 to the new Chippewa Riverfront park along the north shore of the Chippewa River by downtown. Volk pointed out that while he lost that event, he quickly filled that weekend with an RV show that will draw 200 campers that is already booked for the next two summers.
"We filled in with other events, so it's not like we're losing revenue," Volk said. "It's nice to have them, but we aren't hurting for revenue."
Besides the fair in early July, the grounds still hosts Spring Fest in late May, the OneFest Christian music festival in late July and Oktoberfest in mid-September, along with a variety of smaller events. Volk said he's had groups approach him about hosting a rodeo, but he has determined that it would be too costly to invest in the infrastructure to make that event be viable.
"You have to weigh what your grounds can manage," he said.
Construction is now underway on five new buildings at the fairgrounds, estimated to cost about $6 million. The buildings should be complete before the 2023 Northern Wisconsin State Fair in early July. Volk said he is now taking bookings for use of those buildings after the fair next year, and he's seeing a lot of interest.
"This week, we've had five requests to use the fairgrounds that are brand new, from weddings to class reunions," Volk said. "We're doing fine; we've got plenty of other bookings. We're booking events that will be more sustainable for our grounds."