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St. Clair County made sole owner of Belle-Clair Fairgrounds. Now construction can start

The 22.5 acre Belle-Clair Fairgrounds & Expo Center in Belleville will soon have new ownership. The property is located at 200 South Belt East near the intersection of Illinois 159 and 15.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
The 22.5 acre Belle-Clair Fairgrounds & Expo Center in Belleville will soon have new ownership. The property is located at 200 South Belt East near the intersection of Illinois 159 and 15.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Officials from Belleville and St. Clair County voted Monday night to terminate the city’s involvement in their joint ownership of the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds & Expo Center.

It was another step in the legal process of transferring the 22.5-acre property from private to public control. And the move gets the county closer to starting $14 million in planned construction to improve the facilities, including the Belle-Clair Speedway racetrack, according to County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

The city of Belleville had signed a joint purchase agreement with St. Clair County in December.

Under the agreement, the county covered the $2.35 million purchase price with federal COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan. But Belleville owned one of 51 shares of stock in Belle-Clair Fairgrounds Park Inc., the corporation through which the property is operated.

Kern said in an interview Monday that it needed to be a joint endeavor initially to be able to legally take control of a corporation, but their goal was to terminate that corporation eventually.

“A county can’t buy a corporation,” Kern said. “It had to be two government entities, so Belleville joined in with the county. ... In the agreement, it was contemplated that it could be terminated because at some point we knew we wanted to terminate the corporation. Now, we want to start spending money and in order to spend money at a property, the county has to own it.”

The county became the sole owner when officials voted Monday night at separate meetings of the Belleville City Council and St. Clair County Board to end their original agreement.

Officials want the St. Clair County Public Building Commission to manage and operate the fairgrounds along with all of the other county-owned properties. County board members approved a contract with the commission for fairgrounds operation during its meeting Monday night.

The commission is scheduled to meet Friday to sign the contract with the county, plus two contracts for architect and engineering services related to the fairgrounds.

The $14 million in construction planned at the fairgrounds will be covered by COVID-19 relief dollars allocated to the county.

County's plans for Belle-Clair Fairgrounds

Kern has said that the county generally wants to use the property for emergency services, as well as continued hospitality and tourism.

The fairgrounds served as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site during the pandemic. He said the county wants it to remain available for public use in any future disasters.

Community events such as flea markets and craft shows have continued uninterrupted since the change in ownership. And county officials have envisioned additional events, including bringing the annual St. Clair County Fair back to the fairgrounds years after it was canceled due to financial difficulties.

Officials originally hoped the county fair could return in 2023, but Kern said the date has been pushed to 2024.

The county board voted in December to apply for the state funding that is available for county fairs. The deadline for counties to ask for financial support from the Department of Agriculture is Dec. 31 of the year before they plan to organize a county fair.

“The state was ready to come forward (with funding) but we weren’t ready to do a credible job with the county fair,” Kern said. “It was just too short a timeline. ... You only have one reborn county fair, and we want to make sure that it’s very special when it happens.”

Kern has said it’s his goal for racing to return to the Belle-Clair Speedway by 2024 as well, barring any construction delays.

On Monday, he said he doesn’t expect the mileage — or character — of the track to change during the renovation. But work is needed to make it safer, according to Kern, who described the track as “not insurable” in its current state.

The track began operating in Belleville in 1948. Races were halted in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When races were conducted at the track, the noise from the engines could be heard through much of the city. The chairman recalled hearing it from the time he was a child.

“It was a Friday night tradition in the summer,” Kern said. “Like lightning bugs, hearing the track was a sign that summer was here and school was out. So it’ll mean a lot to hear the track successful again. And it’ll mean a lot to have the fairgrounds parking lot full of cars with people out and about and enjoying St. Clair County.”

Lexi Cortes and Mike Koziatek are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Lexi Cortes is an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Mike Koziatek is a reporter who covers the Belleville area for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.