It’s called the Hilmar Cheese Co. barn, but Merced County Fair officials said Friday the first new construction on the Merced County Fairgrounds in three decades will be more than just a place to house pigs.
Several dozen fair officials and fans of the fair gathered at the fairgrounds for a groundbreaking ceremony on the building they referred to as the “big barn,” which at 33,800 square feet is double the size of the largest enclosed structure on the grounds. The building is expected to cost about $1.2 million.
Tom Musser, chief executive officer of the fair, said the barn will serve children who show animals during the fair but is also meant to draw exhibitors year round. The new building is to replace the swine barn, which was built in 1939.
“You can’t do anything else with those swine barns but put animals in them – that’s it,” Musser said. “This (new building) will be multi-purpose.”
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He said the barn could help the fair support itself by bringing in funds from rental fees. He said such a large building could be used for anything from dances and banquets to car shows and recreational vehicle sales.
Anything that helps the fairgrounds bring in money could be a boon. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown ended an annual $32 million allocation to fairs across the state.
“All of our funding is gone, so, in order to maintain the fairgrounds, the work for the fair goes on all year round,” Musser said.
On top of the possibility that it could bring in money, the new barn will replace aging facilities that have gotten too old to repair or upgrade.
The old swine barn also carries a dubious history as it was used to hold Japanese Americans in 1942. That year, 4,669 people of Japanese ancestry were interned at the fairground for the duration of World War II.
The new barn has been the vision of the Friends of the Merced County Fair, a nonprofit that has been fundraising for the building for six years. The group said it’s about half paid for, but the fundraising effort continues.
A $250,000 donation from Hilmar Cheese Co. solidified the barn’s name.
The barn will be the first new construction at the fairground in 33 years, officials said, and the first new public space in 42 years.
Jennifer Krumm, chief operating officer of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, said events at the fairground draw people from out of town, which can benefit local businesses. “They stimulate the economy every time they have something out here,” she said. “People have to spend the night sometimes, therefore they get hotel rooms and eat out, and that type of stuff.”
Students from around the county also come to the fair every year to show the livestock they’ve raised in FFA or 4-H. Flip Hassett, a member of the fair’s board of directors, said programs like those give young people something positive to do with their time, so the barn is an investment in young people.
An Atwater High junior at the ceremony, Amanda Skidmore, an officer in FFA, has been looking forward to the big barn since the sixth grade. That was when she started raising money for it, the 16-year-old said.
Skidmore said she remembers rumors in 2011, when the governor cut funding, that the fair could become a thing of the past. So seeing a new building go up was heartwarming.
“I think the barn truly means a promise of a new future – a future in agriculture,” she said.
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.