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The Erie County Fair looks out for the 98 percent, with new $8 million discovery center

DOWN IT COMES — Pictured is the beginning phase of the demolition of three barns at the Erie County Fair, which occurred on Aug. 20. Photos used courtesy of Jessica Underberg and the Erie County Fair.
HAMBURG — When the sun set over the Erie County Fair on Aug. 18 and the vendors and exhibitors packed up their goods and animals and headed home, the work was just beginning for The Fairgrounds staff.

When this year’s fair closed, new bovine mothers from the “Moo-ternity” ward ambled out of their temporary home for the last time. Equipment was removed from the “Ag-sperience” building and the milking parlor, in anticipation of upcoming demolition.

These three longtime fair buildings (Ag-sperience and barns 7 and 8) are no longer standing; in their place, the 60,000-square-foot, three-section Agriculture Discovery Center is currently growing. In late September, 870,000 pounds of “red iron” steel was delivered to The Fairgrounds, for the framework of this new fair addition.

The Agriculture Discovery Center will be made up of three, approximately 20,000-square-foot, sections.

A new 12-stall milking parlor will include 50-spigot, high-pressure wash racks, public restrooms and some office space. A second section of the in-progress building will house livestock in brand-new stalls.

A third section will be dedicated to agricultural education, according to Assistant Fair Manager Jessica Underberg. This public part of the discovery center will be open year-round and feature robotic cows visitors can “milk,” or see hooked up to milkers. The space will also include a sow crate, a calf-feeding section, a blacksmith shop, a farm focus room (for hands-on activities, such as butter-making), the

“Moo-ternity” pens and a steel grain silo theater.

Glass walls will allow visitors to watch the events in the milking parlor. “This is really an educational piece,” Underberg said. “People will be able to watch and learn.”

The project will also feature a combine and equine element, both with simulators, so kids can get a hands-on agriculture experience.

“We have been talking about how we present information to the public,” Underberg said, “and we found that we tend to present the information from our vantage point. In actuality, 98 percent of the public is not directly involved with agriculture. We had to figure out how to target that 98 percent.”

Underberg said that, when she and Fair Manager and CEO Dennis Lang were presenting the idea for the discovery center, one of their goals was to “connect the producer and consumer in one spot. This is the last real touch point between the producer and the consumer.”

CONSTRUCTION ZONE — The construction is pictured, three days later, after the structure was razed.
The second goal of this project, according to Lang, is to show the technological advances in agriculture. “This will be a state-of-the art livestock facility,” he said. “We have kept exhibitor and animal comfort in mind; this will be as good a livestock facility as there is anywhere on the East Coast.”

Lang said that, prior to the new facility, the fair was limited in terms of what sized event it could host. This new building will allow the Hamburg fair to house an additional 500 horses or 1,200 head of cattle. Now, not only will the fair be able to host larger shows, it will have the capacity to hold two livestock shows at the same time, one in the existing ShowPlex and one in the Agriculture Discovery Center.

“We were really limited to the size of the events we were hosting and knew that, if we expanded, we could do more,” Lang said. “At the same time, we are making the livestock and exhibitors’ experience better.”

The new facility will also allow for the expansion of the fair’s ongoing Farm 2 Table offering for area students. While these free field trips were currently held in June and September (and will occur at the schools’ facilities, while the construction is ongoing), when the discovery center is completed, this program will be offered, year-round.

According to Underberg, 4,776 kids from 81 different area classrooms, including those from schools ranging from Buffalo to Hamburg and Lancaster to Boston, will experience Farm 2 Table during 71 days, this school year. This program is built around New York state curriculum and exists to “teach people about agriculture,” Underberg said. “If we don’t do the program, some kids might never learn about these things.”

Children participating in Farm 2 Table do agriculture activities like blacksmithing and milking a cow, as they learn about the various facets of farm life. This will be an ongoing offering in the educational piece of the new center and Underberg said that it will be available to any local groups that wish to participate, in addition to the school children.

Underberg added that the new complex will ultimately allow the fair to more effectively educate its public. “We need to get out of the mentality of the 2 percent [that knows agriculture],” she said. “Animals are the No. 2 reason people come to the fair (behind only food), and this will really help us feature them.”

Lang said that many of the ideas for the new facility came from various aspects of other buildings of this type that he and Underberg toured in states such as Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Texas, Florida, Kentucky and more. “We took pieces of all of them,” he said. “We would ask the people at those fairs what worked and what didn’t, and we learned from that.”

The facility has also provided the opportunity for the fair to host three conferences of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, two in 2015 and one in 2016.

HEAVY LOAD — A total of 870,00 pounds of steel from Grand Island, Neb. and Indiana began to arrive for the project on Sept. 23.
Except for the steel, all of the resources and manpower being utilized for the new discovery center is local. Area contractors include Engineer Nussbaumer & Clarke, Architect Frank Wailand and Construction Manager Charlie Kelkenberg. Site work is done by Serafini Construction, water and sewer is provided by Kandy Company, plumbing is being done by MKS, electrical work is being completed by Gordon & Zoerb and heating, ventilation and air conditioning is provided by Northeast Mechanical.

Lang said that the project is anticipated to be completed just in time for the Erie County Fair’s 175th anniversary. Next year’s fair theme will be “175 years and growing strong, through tradition, agriculture and excitement.”

For more information, visit the fair at www.ecfair.org.
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