It wouldn’t be summer in Lowell without the Kent County Youth Fair. For generations, kids from across the country have streamed into the city to show animals and other exhibits at Recreation Park.
“My dad showed at the Lowell Fair in, I think it was, 1934,” said Dick Posthumus, former Lt. Governor for the State of Michigan and honorary co-chair of the Raising Barns, Building Youth Campaign. Posthumus was one of several dignitaries and fair representatives addressing supporters and donors of the campaign at a special celebration held Monday night.
It’s a project that’s been talked about for decades, but fair officials say it’s about to become reality. About half the money for the first phase of construction has been raised, and the 2020 Kent County Youth Fair is expected to be held in its new home on property that has for years been the Deer Run Golf Course on Cascade Road.
City Park Presents Challenges
The Kent County Youth Fair has been at its current location in the City of Lowell’s Recreation Park for more than 80 years. The site initially gave the fair approximately 66 acres of usable space. However, over the years, that land has dwindled as parts of the park were developed for Burch field, the wastewater treatment facility and other uses.
Today, the fair operates on 23 acres, 19 of which are usable land, with additional parking space provided by Dr. Jim Reagan on his property across Hudson Street. Those 19 acres need to host a carnival, exhibition halls and parking space. There are 260 campsites tightly packed onto the property as well.
Since the fair doesn’t charge a gate fee, there is no exact record of attendees. However, somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 people are estimated to come to the fair each year.
Although the city location is historic and close to amenities, it poses several challenges. Not only is the fair outgrowing its buildings – witness the tent put up each year to accommodate the overflowing poultry barn – but Recreation Park is prone to flooding.
After decades of talk, the fair board kicked off a capital campaign in 2014 to find a new home. Now, property has been purchased, a grants has been secured and donors are being sought to ensure the Kent County Youth Fair can move to its new site by 2020.
Kent County Youth Fair Campaign Celebration
For the past four years, the fair board has been working diligently behind the scenes to find an appropriate location and line up sponsors. On Monday night, the group came together for a celebration to recognize all those who have put so much time and effort into the project.
“We’re here because we love the fair,” said Lisa Posthumus Lyons, the Kent County Clerk/Register of Deeds and former State Representative for the Lowell area. Posthumus Lyons and State Senator David Hildenbrand, who was also on hand, were instrumental in helping the fair receive a $2.5 million grant from the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development.
That grant helped buy the Deer Run Golf Course which spans more than 400 acres, upon which about 140 acres will house the fair. The space not only eliminates the flooding concerns from Recreation Park but will provide amble space for 300 regulation sized campsites, exhibition halls, barns and more.
“While we may be leaving the city, we are embarking on a new adventure together,” Posthumus Lyons said. She and Hildenbrand also recognized local resident Betty Yeiter for her generous support of the project. “Truly, this all really got kicked off because of Betty’s vision,” Posthumus Lyons said.
Important to Remain Part of the Lowell Community
John Bieneman, president of the Kent County Youth Fair, said it was important for the fair to remain in the Lowell area. They also wanted to be near the highway, and the Deer Run Golf Course on Cascade Road filled those two requirements. “It has been a marathon,” he said, noting that a previously selected location fell through. “It has not been a sprint.”
Thanks to the grant and private sponsors, the fair is almost halfway to meeting its Phase 1 fundraising goal. The priorities for that phase include items that must be in place for the fairgrounds to be operational in 2020:
- Exhibition arena
- Swine barn
- Horse arena
Once those needs are met, additional funding will be used to install campground bathrooms and other exhibition halls and barns.
Overall, the Kent County Youth Fair board estimates it needs $7 million for the fair to open at its new location in 2020. Of that, nearly $3 million has already been raised. The total project cost for all phases is $13.1 million.
“Like anything in life, things take time and things take money,” said John Schut, co-chair of the Raising Barns, Building Youth campaign. However, he says the final product will be an asset to the county and the state.
While other fairs have turned largely into entertainment venues, the Kent Country Youth Fair remains committed to providing life-changing experiences for kids. Hildenbrand, who showed cattle and poultry at the fair 30 years ago, says 4-H and FFA teach kids the value of hard work as well as how to win graciously and lose with dignity.
“We don’t worry about Garth Brooks. We don’t worry about Nelly. We don’t worry about Kid Rock,” Schut said, referencing musicians who may be sought after by other fairs. “We worry about kids.”
If you want to support the Raising Barns, Building Youth campaign, you can make a donation online at Kent County Youth Fair website.