State Fair Move Seen As Positive Five Years Later

The Nebraska State Fair moved to Grand Island in 2010. The fair has set several attendance records since then. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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November 12, 2014 - 6:30am

In August, the Nebraska State Fair celebrated its fifth year in Grand Island. Moving the Fair from Lincoln was a costly, and relatively rare, decision. As planning is well underway for the 2015 fair, NET News talked with fair officials and local business owners about whether or not that move is paying off. 


Attendance numbers were down slightly this year at the Nebraska State Fair thanks to a string of rainy days, but the fair’s executive director, Joseph McDermott, said aside from the occasional weather-related set-back, moving the fair to Grand Island has been nothing but successful.

“If you look at revenues, our revenues are up about 60 percent since the very first fair here in Grand Island,” McDermott said.

He also said sponsorships are up from about $250,000 in 2010, to more than $700,000 in 2014, almost a 200 percent increase.

Joseph McDermott, the executive director of the Nebraska State Fair, said moving to Grand Island was probably the best thing that could have happened for the fair. McDermott said he also looks to surveys given to fairgoers each year to help gauge satisfaction. "Generally we’ll get between 10,000 and 12,000 responses. Each and every year we’ve been here in Grand Island, our satisfaction rating has been 85% or higher, which is extremely high for an event such as ours." (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Those numbers pale in comparison to the Iowa State Fair, which regularly boasts more than a million attendees every year, but McDermott said considering the fair moved just five years ago, the numbers are nothing to scoff at.

This year, the Nebraska State Fair attracted about 317,000 people despite several days of rain. Last year, more than 335,000 people went to the state fair, and the record for most fairgoers in a day was also set. McDermott said that is all the proof he needs to know moving the fair was the right call.

“It was very successful. I’ll even point to another fair, I think it was the Virginia State Fair that picked up and moved and didn’t enjoy quite the same success we’ve had. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they’re in business anymore,” McDermott said.

The Virginia State Fair moved locations in 2009, and went bankrupt within three years. Now, the Virginia Farm Bureau runs it, but profitability is still a concern.

Back in Nebraska, Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek said one of the reasons the Nebraska State Fair has remained profitable after the move is because his city has been a good partner.

State lawmakers set aside $42 million to move the fair from Lincoln to Grand Island, and the city of Grand Island had to pay another $8.5 million.

“The people of Grand Island had to take on an obligation that was unfunded, because when we lured the legislative consideration to move, we had no dollars,” Vavricek explained.

To raise those dollars, residents in Grand Island voted to create an occupation tax on food and beverages sold within city limits. The tax is 1.5 percent, or about 8 cents on a $5 burger. At places like Tommy’s Family Restaurant, manager Eric Edwards said the extra tax hasn’t hurt business at all, and having the state fairgrounds just a few blocks away doesn’t hurt either.

“We do have a lot of regulars just from that 10-day period, vendors and just people going to the state fair as well. They come in and some of them I can recognize their faces, some of them I can’t yet, but it’s always nice to hear that when they get to town, this is their stop,” Edwards said.

According to Mayor Vavricek, the occupation tax is a solid revenue stream for the city, producing $1.5 million annually. Unless the voters choose to extend it, the tax is set to expire next year when the city’s portion of the state fair move is paid off.

Vavricek said the city of Grand Island, and central Nebraska as a whole, will reap the benefits of the state fair move for years to come.

“The ongoing opportunity to host countless events at those exhibition buildings can’t be understated, because they’re perpetual. Each and every year there’s opportunities there. Indeed, it’s a destination a lot of people take pride in, and because of that it has transformed and transcended the city to a new level,” Vavricek said.

Part of that transformation includes new hotels popping up around town. In the last six years, four new hotels have been built in Grand Island, representing more than a $14 million investment.

The Mainstay Inn & Suites will be the fifth hotel built near the fairgrounds in Grand Island in six years. Nathan DeLaet, the co-owner, said the decision to build a new hotel was due in large part to the various shows and exhibits hosted at the fairgrounds throughout the year. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Just down the street from the fairgrounds, Nathan DeLaet works as the general manager of the Rodeway Inn, and will be a partial owner in the new Mainstay Suites which is being built next door.

DeLaet said the decision to build a second hotel was based on a variety of factors, the state fair being one of them.

“It’s a big part of it. The state fair is only two-weeks out of the year, but they’re starting to utilize those buildings more and more throughout the year, bringing in cattle shows and other livestock shows, and that helps us out quite a bit,” DeLaet said.

But surely there are some businesses dissatisfied the fair moved 90 miles west from its historic location in Lincoln, right? While researching this story, NET News contacted the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Economic Development, and others looking for a business that was negatively affected by the fair moving. The one name that kept coming up as a possibility was Lincoln Tent and Awning.

But Julie Miller, a corporate officer for the company, said, “At this point, we have a really good relationship. They’ll see things they want, and come to us and see if we can make them for them.”

Miller said for the more than 40 years she’s been with Lincoln Tent, they have always supplied the state fair with whatever type of tent they need.

“Except one year. The first year they moved to Grand Island, we did not do the tents at the fair. But every year since then we have, yes. We’ve enjoyed a good, long working relationship with the fair,” Miller said.

It’s that type of working relationship that Joseph McDermott, the executive director of the state fair, hopes to keep developing in Grand Island. To accomplish this, McDermott said the state fair board is currently working to form a non-profit corporation responsible for bringing more attractions to the fairgrounds.  In his words, if you’re going to have 225 acres of state-of-the-art facilities, you might as well use them.

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