Graham Park buildings see new life

April 17, 2018 GMT

Barb Jensen called Floral Hall a blank canvas when it comes to planning the ideal wedding.

Last year, her son and daughter-in-law, Nic and Alyssa Jensen, were among a growing number of newlyweds celebrating on the grounds of Graham Park, the home of the annual Olmsted County Fair.

“You can use it in so many different ways,” she said of the building, noting the bride and groom brought their unique tastes to a venue already loaded with character.

This year, seven weddings have already been held in the limestone structure built in 1938 as a Work Progress Administration project with a cost of $47,730.

Steve Flint, Graham Park’s site manager, said more activity is planned following upgrades this summer, which will aim to make the hall even more attractive for events. He said the building’s weekends are booked solid following the county fair at the end of July.

The site wasn’t always seen as a good choice for weddings, birthday parties or community fundraisers and events.

In 2008, Olmsted County commissioners were considering razing the building after it was deemed unsafe for fair activities.

Eventually, community support highlighted potential uses for the building if it were stabilized and upgraded. Once work is completed this summer, Flint said $526,000 will have been invested in repairs and upgrades over the past decade. The funding includes nearly $7,500 in community donations pledged amid the fight to save the building.

Floral Hall isn’t the only Graham Park building to see the number of weddings and other events grow in recent years.

Following $173,000 in upgrades since 2016, the Industrial Building has new windows, heaters, lighting and restrooms, which has made it a popular attraction. It’s already booked for every weekend through Thanksgiving and has become the winter site for Rochester’s farmers’ market.

Jensen had arranged to hold a Friends of Oxbow Park fundraiser in the 1951 building, but the event was postponed due to the weekend snowstorm and is being rescheduled for Sunday

Again, she said Graham Park is the ideal location for the organization’s event, which she hopes will draw a large crowd.

“There aren’t that many places in Rochester that can hold that many people and offer great parking,” she said.

Graham Park’s 4-H Building has also seen an upgrade, costing approximately $100,000 to offer restrooms and a wheelchair ramp.

“That one’s getting more use since it was cleaned up in there,” Flint said, noting more than 20 weddings are planned this year between the three buildings, with some events using two buildings.

The increased activity has produced added revenue for the county.

In 2015, prior to Flint being hired as the park’s first manager, $105,000 in rental income was reported for the fairground buildings outside the Graham arenas.

Last year, those building rentals surpassed the county’s $200,000 goal, bringing in $230,000.

This year, Flint’s goal is $250,000 in rental revenue, but he said he hopes to top his target again.

“With Floral Hall getting completed, I’m hoping for $275,000 or more,” he said.

The county is also eyeing other efforts to expand revenue at Graham Park. On Tuesday, county commissioners will see the latest efforts to develop a master plan for renovations. The plan could create a festival grounds to attract year-round activity inside and outside the historic buildings that dot the fairgrounds.

“We have a concept we’ve been exploring,” said County Board Chairwoman Sheila Kiscaden, who has been spurring much of the activity to rejuvenate Graham Park.

The concept would include creating a new multi-use facility while shifting portions of the grounds to create green space for gatherings.

Part of that effort is seeking $10 million in capital-improvement funds from the state. A request has been submitted for the Minnesota Legislature’s bonding bill, which funds infrastructure projects through money the state borrows using construction bonds.

Lawmakers and others have noted the project could face an uphill battle for funding this year, but Kiscaden said the county is ready to continue requesting state help as plans unfold. She noted it frequently takes multiple requests for such funding to be realized.

To help draw attention to the project, as well as encourage private investment, the county board recently gave the nod to rejuvenating the Friends of Graham Park organization.

Originally created by the 2008 Leadership Greater Rochester class, the group would become a way to bring new ideas to the table and demonstrate the economic impact of the park, Kiscaden said.

Patrick Sexton, who has been lobbying on behalf of the park at the state Capitol, said the group ideally would include a mix of people who can show the broad benefits of the site, today and in the future.

“I think by doing that, you will have a buy-in and get a better project because people will be invested,” he told county commissioners.

Kiscaden said plans are being made to launch the group’s efforts next year, as Graham Park marks its 100th anniversary.