DELAND — For 100 years, the Volusia County Fair has been the place to take a spin on a merry-go-round, indulge in a crispy funnel cake and pet a sweet young pony.
What if the sprawling fairgrounds on State Road 44 near Interstate 4 could also become the home of an open-air arena, a sports complex with multiple fields and courts, splash park, kayak ramp, walking and running paths, an early Florida historical village, environmental educational center, new landscaping, shaded rest areas, an RV park and more?
Those are some of the ideas County Council members discussed at their meeting Tuesday, proposals that came out of a study of the fairgrounds led over the past six months by faculty experts with the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning.
What will become of some historic Volusia County properties?:These are Volusia’s 12 most historical treasures. Will they survive?
Other recent Volusia County government news:Volusia County Council explodes in anger over environmental meeting
Read more about Volusia County Council:Councilwoman Heather Post faces questions about firearm
It’s an ambitious vision that would take years and millions of dollars to create, and it could require buying property that borders the fairgrounds that are encircled in rural land.
But it’s a dream County Council members are willing to at least explore to see if the 20 acres of grassy land that’s been the county fair headquarters since 1968 could grow into an outdoor recreation mecca.
“I’m very excited,” said County Councilwoman Heather Post. “So many people have had this dream and all of these ideas for many years, and it’s finally coming together. I’m very impressed with what was proposed.”
At their meeting Tuesday, Council members decided to start by allocating $750,000 of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to tackle improvements needed at the fairgrounds with drainage, lighting, paving, parking, signage and roadways within the site.
Council members also agreed to seek a $1 million grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to pay for the basic upgrades to make the site more usable.
And there was unanimous agreement on the Council to consider additions to the fairgrounds that could transform the property into a place for concerts, sports tournaments, weddings, environmental and historical education, and leisure for residents looking for a nice area to walk, fly a kite or toss a frisbee.
County Chair Jeff Brower said the proposed reinvention of the site would make the fairgrounds a year-round destination, and not just a place residents visit once a year for the fair, which is scheduled to run this fall from Nov. 3-13.
The idea to overhaul the fairgrounds began in July last year, when the Council-appointed Agribusiness Inter-Relationship Advisory Committee sent a letter asking if ARPA funds could be used to improve the fairgrounds. In February this year, Council members agreed to spend $750,000 of the federal funds if a master plan for future improvements could be developed.
The University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning agreed to launch a research project on the site. University officials gathered information on the history of the fair and its current location, held a community meeting and conducted an online survey.
They took a hard look at what’s already on the site, which has a 22,400-square-foot arena, 10,000-square-foot pavilion, 8,100-square-foot multi-purpose building and 6,000 parking spaces.
Then they came up with a menu of proposed options that could be phased in over coming years.
The ideas from University of Florida professors and a research assistant include a historic Florida village with early settlement buildings, a central plaza, fountain and chapel.
They also envisioned a vast green area to act as a central lawn for different types of events, tree-lined streets, gardens, benches, new walkways with pavers, multiple plazas and tensile fabric tents to provide shade.
They also suggest a walkable perimeter where people could stroll or jog, and a retention pond to collect rainwater runoff.
“It was so much more than I expected,” Brower said. “This makes the fairgrounds the centerpiece of our community, which it should be.”
“We could be so much more,” said Brad Burbaugh, the county’s director of Resource Stewardship.
Burbaugh said when the fairgrounds were used for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing, local officials started to think about the property’s potential.
“During COVID we realized what a strategic asset the fairgrounds were in terms of its central location and its ability to serve our citizens in its time of need,” Burbaugh said.
That evolved into the idea to make it a magnet for leisure time fun.
While future approvals will be needed to make the ideas reality, so far Council members like what they see.
“I’m really pleased,” said Councilwoman Barbara Girtman. “This is the central point for our community. It deserves our investment.”
She said she likes that the proposals include environmental attractions and “acknowledge history.”
“I’m excited for our future with these opportunities,” Girtman said, noting she’d like to see an amphitheater visible from I-4.
If the county doesn’t decide how the area gets developed, it runs the risk of getting developed around, she said.
The original Volusia County fairgrounds were located near railroad tracks west of DeLand and carved out of a forest in the early 1920s, according to University of Florida research. Creating a home for the fair directly across from the DeLand Junction railroad station cost nearly $40,000.
The unique entrance to the fairgrounds was designed by local architect William J. Carpenter and built in 1923. On the other side of the elaborate arch were simple vernacular buildings within the fair grounds.
University researchers found that several of the original fairgrounds buildings remain standing, including sheet metal exhibition barns. But the entrance gate has been demolished.
The fair became an annual event with a large poultry show, and the grounds were also used for exhibitions, automobile and horse races, and other community activities, according to county records. During World War II, the exhibition buildings were used for the assembly of gliders mainly used in the European theater.
The fairgrounds had eight large exhibit buildings and a large covered grandstand with a half-mile dirt track for auto racing. Today the Sheriff’s Office uses most of the space for a driver training course.
The fair shut down during World War II, and it wasn’t held again until 1955. For the next few years after that, the fair moved around to a few different locations in DeLand. Then it wasn’t held from 1960-1965.
In 1966, the fair resumed on the site where the DeLand YMCA is now located, but there were only tents, no buildings.
The current 20-acre site on State Road 44 was donated to fair organizers around 1967, and the first fair was held there in 1968 in tents. The county built the commercial and educational buildings in 1970 and 1971, and in the years since has made other additions and improvements.
You can reach Eileen at [email protected]