As the Lake County Fair Association digs out of debt and looks to increase the use of its new facilities, its former longtime home in the heart of Grayslake remains a ghost town of idled promise.
The signs say "coming soon," but the arrival of a regional shopping center at routes 120 and 45 appears no closer to breaking ground than when the village board approved the concept more than three years ago.
"There really isn't any new news on the old fairgrounds," Mayor Rhett Taylor said. "It's basically in a holding pattern."
The 111-acre site remains virtually unchanged since the last Lake County Fair was held there in 2008. The animal pens and related buildings, along with the ticket booth that welcomed guests for more than 50 years, deteriorate slowly behind locked gates.
Developer Diversified Realty Corp., a suburban Cleveland firm, has the green light from the village to redevelop the site into "The Fairgrounds of Grayslake."
Developers bought the Titus Farm on Peterson Road at Midlothian Road and exchanged that property along with $12.5 million in cash for the old fairgrounds site.
Renderings presented in 2007 depicted an architectural style for the shopping center featuring old-fashioned lampposts, cupolas, dormers, wood and brick as reflecting the village's history.
With 807,000 square feet of retail space, the project would be about two-thirds the size of the Westfield Hawthorn mall in Vernon Hills, and the largest nonresidential development ever built in Grayslake.
But tough times apparently have hindered progress. and no plans involving new construction have been submitted.
"Given the economy, they're not doing anything," said Kirk Smith, Grayslake's zoning officer.
When or if that might change is unknown. and the company did not respond to requests for comment.
Aside from the site being a vacant and somewhat melancholy reminder of a time gone by, the idled property is not necessarily hurting the village. Although the expected sales tax bonanza from a large retail development has not materialized, the fair and related activities generate sales taxes at the new location.
"It's not as if you had a mall go under and close," Taylor said. "It looks like an old fairgrounds."
Meanwhile, there have been signs of life in terms of retail activity around Lake County. Several prominent vacancies will be filled in Vernon Hills, a new theater complex last week was announced for Green Oaks and new grocery stores are under construction in Kildeer, Long Grove and Vernon Hills, for example.
Will that translate to interest in the old fairgrounds? Observers say it may be tougher in Grayslake because large existing shopping areas are relatively close.
"Creating new shopping facilities, except for areas that are really understored and underserviced, is still pretty dicey," said George Rosenbaum, analyst at Chicago-based retail research firm Leo J. Shapiro and Associates Inc.
"The question is, is there an anchor store or a couple of anchor stores that they have commitments from and how solid are the commitments?"
Developers Diversified owns and manages about 590 retail centers or development sites throughout the U.S. and other countries totaling more than 134 million square feet.
In a quarterly report filed last month with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company noted retail "significantly weakened" in 2008 and continued to be "challenged" in 2009.
The company said it thinks retailers are more optimistic and many executed contracts in 2010 to open new stores and have strong store opening plans for 2011 and 2012.
Developers Diversified continues to sign a large number of new leases, according to company reporting, but the Grayslake property remains among nearly two dozen "ground up" developments on hold.
Rosenbaum said financing for a Grayslake-style project may still be tough.
"I would say it's fairly a long shot that this is going to happen in the next year or year and a half," he said.
To move forward, Developers Diversified would still need final approval of the site plan, engineering and other construction-related details.
Taylor said it is important to note the project cannot be substantially changed without an entirely new review.
"It's not like they can come in with something different," he said. "There's (village) control over what would happen with the property."