Ten years after decision to move, State Fair thrives in Grand Island

Omaha Children's Museum at the Nebraska State Fair (NTV News)

Ten years and two- million visitors later, the Nebraska State Fair is a "grand" success in its central Nebraska home. The journey from Lincoln to Grand Island officially began ten years ago this week.

“I can tell you this is the best day of my life right now,” Mekenzie Beattie of Sumner said, after winning the market beef competition.

It’s the moment the fair was built for, to showcase what kids have done on the farm and ranch.

State Fair Executive Director Lori Cox said, “That's why I show up every day, most important thing about this business is that smile, unbelievable smile, moms are balling their heads off, excited about their kids in that competitive environment.”

A decade ago, some questioned if the Nebraska State Fair would survive. Numbers were slipping, and facilities were aging.

Maybe the biggest factor was that University of Nebraska wanted State Fair Park in Lincoln for its innovation campus.

Against that backdrop, Cindy Johnson took the hot seat at the state capitol to pitch Grand Island as the new home.

“I remember only because I was terrified, and I had been warned about Ernie Chambers as a questioner as someone who comes before the committee. And so one of the things we knew we had to do was know our stuff and we knew our stuff,” Johnson said ten years later.

With lawmakers convinced, Governor Dave Heineman signed the move into law on April 18, 2018.

“They've got a can-do attitude, they want the state fair,” he told NTV at the time.

the only other modern effort to move a state fair resulted in bankruptcy in Virginia, but not Nebraska.

“And making that change happen so well is pretty much unheard of,” Cox said.

Overlooked in the move was a reorganization, from a 29-member board to 11.

The woman who led the board said the unique backgrounds in construction and livestock paid off.

Sallie Atkins said, “They're etched here in the footprint of this state fair in perpetuity. The stars aligned. I don't know what we would've done without the talent we had on the board at the time.”

Atkins isn’t content to look back, she thinks the fair’s best days are ahead under new director Lori Cox who started in January.

“Just thought the remarkable talent this girl brings and what's possible with raising the bar and taking the Nebraska State Fair to the next level - I can't wait to see what's in store,” Atkins said.

Cox thinks the fair can grow its reputation, with a premier livestock venue that caused jaws to drop during construction, and still does.

Cox said, “It's just an absolute stunning moment when you walk in and see Five Points Bank Arena. It's just something you would not see anywhere else in the country.”

Major cattle breeds have hosted national shows in these barns, but some were slow to see the vision.

Cindy Johnson said, “There were several who saw it only as an 11-day event, the Nebraska State Fair. There were more who saw it as a way to bring extra people and revenue to this community.”

Grand Island’s former mayor joked there’d be blood running down O Street before Lincoln would give up the fair.

Many expected attendance to plunge.

Johnson said, “They used numbers as low as 200,000 so where we are today, what we're seeing in terms of attendance well exceeds what the professionals thought 8-10 years ago.”

The fair has broken every record but one, and is close to doubling the initial projections. The fair reached 380,000 guests in 2018.

And the campus at Fonner Park hosts events all year.

Johnson said, “It's a community changing event. To have $42 million worth of facilities available to his community year-round is phenomenal.”

Sallie Atkins calls it an arranged marriage between the fair and Fonner Park, which owns the property.

Lori Cox says future expansion hinges on cooperation between the two.

“There are some great opportunities to work together to continue to grow the capital front of all things buildings, infrastructure, storm water always a challenge on our floating island and what we can do going forward really depends on our two boards being able to work together,” she said.

A horse arena is on the wish list, if it makes sense.

“That's something I can't answer today but are under investigation,” Cox said.

With her farm background, Cox appreciates the decision to make the barns the focal point.

“Just don't see a layout like this. We have Grand Central Station happening right on top of our livestock, you couldn't ask for a better opportunity for ag education.”

She says the fair is the last, best, and maybe only place to teach the public about agriculture.

And they continue to dream up ways to build on the work that started a decade ago.

Past board chair Sallie Atkins said, “It was either we get it done, or we can't put on a fair. Turns out it was a win-win for everybody. We gave our all.”

Tourism officials say hotel business has boomed in the years that have followed, with those year-round events, and now Aksarben as well.

Johnson said the fair raised the community’s profile, and now officially a metropolitan area, Grand Island is on the map for many.

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