LINCOLN — A late August heat wave blocked the Nebraska State Fair's march to a third straight gain in annual attendance.
A total of 334,931 attended the 11-day event in Grand Island. That represents a 0.6 percent drop from 2012, Joseph McDermott, the fair's executive director, said Tuesday. The fair opened Aug. 23 and ended Monday.
It was the first time since the fair moved to Grand Island in 2010 that total attendance failed to rise compared to the previous year.
McDermott blamed daily temperatures in the mid-90s during the first nine days of the 144th State Fair. When temperatures dropped Sunday and Monday, the crowds returned in force.
The 71,355 people in attendance Sunday set a one-day record for the event since its move to Grand Island, McDermott said. And the figure came within 246 of beating the all-time record for a single day set in 2009, the fair's final year in its longtime host city of Lincoln.
On Labor Day, 33,840 people attended the fair, an increase of 15 percent compared with the same day in 2012, McDermott said.
On Saturday, however, when the heat index was around 100 degrees, 42,712 people attended, an 18 percent decrease when compared with the same day in 2012.
The second Sunday is traditionally the busiest day of the fair, and the second Saturday typically ranks right behind it. Considering weather forecasters were predicting the break in the heat, it appears some fairgoers timed their visit for Sunday and Monday.
“We gained it all back on Sunday,” McDermott said, adding that the day's attendance increased 21 percent compared with the second Sunday in 2012.
While late August heat and humidity aren't unusual in Nebraska, much of the state had experienced a cooler-than-normal summer. McDermott said he thought that may have played a role in making this year's weather feel even hotter to fairgoers. Emergency medical technicians stationed at the fair treated a number of people for heat-related conditions.
“It was really tough,” he said. “It took some getting used to to be out in the heat.”
All of the fair's buildings are air-conditioned, McDermott pointed out. And construction is underway on a new structure, the Nebraska Building, that will have 28,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The fair added shade canopies this year, especially on the east side of the fairgrounds. More shade areas will be added for next year as well, McDermott said.
Despite the heat, the event came within about half a percent of equaling the 2012 attendance of 336,987. The event drew 309,000 in 2010, the first year after it was moved from Lincoln to make way for a new technology and research park for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Otherwise, McDermott called the fair a success. He was especially pleased with the new midway operator, Wade Shows, which was highlighted by the marketing campaign leading up to the event.
“We received many, many comments about the quality of the midway,” he said.