OWATONNA — Perhaps the most obvious cosmetic change fairgoers have noticed this week at the Steele County Free Fair is the northeast quadrant of the grounds, where the north part of the racetrack has been removed, opening up an area that was often previously congested.

There’s now a second walking path on that end of the grounds, as well as additional vendors, dining options, and a bar/lounge, the Steele Saloon. Adding to the new look is the new Wayne and Betty Kubicek Family Cattle Haven.

The revamped northeast side is “what everyone is going to notice” at the SCFF this year, Josh Prokopec said Tuesday evening. “We basically restructured that whole end.”

“We took the north end of the track down and leveled it off,” an alteration that had been discussed for years as racing basically disappeared from the SCFF, said Prokopec, who has been the head of buildings and grounds at the SCFF for the past 15 years. “Dirt track racing is an expensive sport, and we had a hard time getting promoters to do it.”

However, enough of the dirt track remains that racing could return at some point in the future, he said. “You could have dirt racing if someone wanted to do it.”

Doug Meier, a member of the fair board who was instrumental in bringing the Steele Saloon to the SCFF, is thrilled with the location for the bar/lounge.

“Traffic on the new road has been very good,” Meier said. “I’m very happy with the location, and foot traffic is great.”

The Steele Saloon is a place where “people can sit and relax and have a conversation,” Meier said. “It’s away from the loud music, they can bring food in, and order a cocktail of their choice.”

The Steele Saloon’s hours through Friday will be 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. On Saturday, the bar will open at 10 a.m. and close at 10:30 p.m., while Sunday hours are noon to 8 p.m.

From 10-noon Saturday, “we’re going to have a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar,” Meier said. Individuals interested in visiting the Steele Saloon this week should remember that everyone must have identification to enter.

Though severe storms Tuesday evening led to a “slow start” for the Steele Saloon on opening night, “after the weather cleared,” attendance was “even better than I thought it would be,” he said. “So far, I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from anyone in” the Steele Saloon.

The northeast quadrant still has more available space, which could be utilized in myriad ways in future years, Prokopec said. For example, “we could see a permanent entertainment venue there” and/or “a picnic area.”

The new Wayne and Betty Kubicek barn in that area — all 17,328 square feet of it — replaces a pair of cattle barns that dated back six decades, one of which suffered a collapsed roof under heavy snowfall this winter.

“We just wanted to do something nice for our community,” Wayne Kubicek told the People’s Press. “We all survived growing up here and basically live at the fair.”

Prokopec is essentially a SCFF lifer, who started at age 14 parking cars with his best friend, then moved onto the grounds crew the following year and “never left,” he said. Because of additional duties with Owatonna Public Utilities, he’s no longer able to be on site as much, so he’s become a member of the SCFF board, but he’ll always be focused on buildings and grounds.

Among the highlights from his decades at the SCFF are his relationships with Elmer Reseland, longtime secretary/manager, and Jim Gleason, former SCFF manager, both of whom are now deceased. Prokopec credits Reseland with helping grow the SCFF to where it is today.

The SCFF was “a lot smaller back” when Prokopec began working, attracting perhaps 100,000 people, juxtaposed with the 300,000-plus who now move through the grounds over Fair Week, he said. “We had half the food vendors and a third of the people,” but “Reseland had a vision, and he was able to take it to a new level.”

Reseland “was really good at getting superintendents and volunteers, and that’s a big deal,” Prokopec added. “He made it fun,” and “he was always lighthearted.”

Prokopec’s main concern during SCFF week is rain, which can lead to flooded areas on the grounds, he said. In addition, if it rains on closing day, removing the rides from the midway can cause “some pretty bad ruts” in the ground.

The next major project on the grounds is shifting power lines from overhead to underground for the sake of safety and convenience, he said. “We’ve started some of that, but it’s not cheap.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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