Remember way back when the Nebraska State Fair was held in Lincoln?
If you had to pause to think about that, then it’s one more sign of the success the fair has enjoyed since relocating to Grand Island.
But it’s far from the only one. The 2010 move made room for the University of Nebraska’s new Innovation Campus, and that was no small accomplishment. The change of scenery also has breathed new life and fresh excitement into Nebraska’s annual salute to farming, family fun and food.
By almost any measure, the fair is getting high marks in its new home. With the 144th edition opening Friday, here are a few examples:
>> Attendance last year was 336,987. That was an increase over 2011 and 2010, and except for the fair’s farewell year, significantly higher than the previous decade in Lincoln.
>> Fairgoers like what they see. A survey of last year’s crowd found 78 percent saying the Nebraska State Fair was “better” or “much better” than other fairs they’ve attended, and 94 percent said they were likely or very likely to give an enthusiastic referral.
>> Exhibitors are happy. Ninety-five percent from 2012 said they were likely to return. And in announcing plans for a new, $5.4 million building for the fairgrounds, fair officials said the Grand Island event has had an “unprecedented exhibitor waiting list” since 2010.
>> Sponsors are pleased. Cash and in-kind contributions to the fair have risen dramatically, from $390,000 in 2010 to $969,000 this year.
>> Volunteers are plentiful. A total of 880 volunteers worked at the 2012 fair, donating more than 12,000 hours of their time. That’s real commitment.
>> The fair has made good on its promise to put renewed emphasis on its agricultural roots. Thousands of 4-H, FFA and open class exhibitors will be competing in livestock and domestics categories. The post-2012 survey found 81 percent of fairgoers saying they increased their knowledge of agriculture, while 88 percent agreed that ag is important to the fair.
>> As for the all-important food, the fair’s website (http://statefair.org/fair/) has a “food finder” that helps users select a favorite food category or vendor, then find it on a printable fairgrounds map. Another feature allows users to chart out the day’s itinerary, while a smartphone app can help find entertainment, eats, even where you parked the car.
Certainly there’s more work to be done. The majority of 2012 fairgoers hailed from Grand Island and central Nebraska, and, while the fair’s more accessible to them and residents of western Nebraska, luring more Omaha and Lincoln residents wouldn’t hurt.
Clearly, Midlanders like their state fairs. The Iowa State Fair, which is wrapping up its 2013 run today, is that state’s largest event, annually attracting about 1 million visitors.
Moving Nebraska’s fair, while traumatic at the time, has proven to be a real boon.
“There was some concern,” State Fair Executive Director Joseph McDermott acknowledges. “Picking up and moving an entire state fair, and moving it away from the population base — that’s something that hadn’t been done before.”
But now, he told The World-Herald, “It was probably the best thing that could have happened to the Nebraska State Fair.” The sparkling Grand Island fairgrounds “are probably the envy of ever state fair in the nation.”
None of which is to say that the more than 100 years of hard work, traditions and celebrations at the old Lincoln fairgrounds weren’t important or memorable. The event was a big deal for a long time.
But new traditions are being made, and in its new home, the State Fair is positioned for another 100 years of making good memories for Nebraskans.