Attendance and revenue were down for the 2019 Nebraska State Fair, executive director Lori Cox said Friday during a State Fair Board meeting.
The misfortune was attributed to torrential rainfall in the area. The rain also caused unbudgeted expenses when shuttles became necessary to get fairgoers to Fonner Park after water inundated the grass lots, making parking there impossible.
Counting the two days before the opening of the fair through Aug. 26, Grand Island received nearly 5 inches of rain. For the entire month of August, Grand Island received nearly 12 inches of precipitation.
While the rain let up for the second weekend of the fair, the parking situation at Fonner Park did not improve because of the soft ground. That caused the fair to add more buses to the shuttle route and more unplanned expenses.
Swanson Russell, which handles marketing for the State Fair, reported that attendance reached 283,468, down 10% from 2018. That caused a 12% decline in gate revenue from the previous year.
The loss of revenue put the fair in a short-term financial crunch, leading board member Jeremy Jensen to make a motion to apply for a $1.5 million line of credit with Five Points Bank to help pay creditors.
Jensen explained the action, which is common practice with many businesses, as a short-term loan to help with the fair’s cash flow.
This is the second year State Fair officials had to deal with above-normal precipitation. In 2018, the State Fair was forced to cancel its outdoor concert series because soft ground created an unstable situation for the stage.
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After several presentations during the State Fair Board meeting, the board went into executive session for more than two hours for personnel evaluation. Once the regular meeting was resumed, board member and treasurer Doug Lukassen announced his immediate resignation from the board. He did not comment on his resignation.
Nebraska State Fair staff worked throughout the year in preparation for this year’s event, which celebrated the fair’s 150th anniversary and its 10th year in Grand Island.
Those prefair promotions paid off and were a contributing factor at easing the financial impact of the heavy rain. Presales of gate admissions were up 30% from 2018, and carnival presales set a record, tripling the previous high.
Despite the lower attendance because of the weather, sales for 64 concessionaires were up from previous years, with six vendors reporting increases of more than 50%. Revenues also were up at the campground and various taverns on the fairgrounds. There were record entries for both 4-H and FFA exhibitors.
Chris Kircher, chairman of the State Fair Board, said, “We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can provide an experience for fairgoers that at least competes with the weather.”
“In a year when we were forced to move or cancel events because of weather conditions, it’s counterintuitive to see high attendee satisfaction — yet, according to our on-grounds surveys, satisfaction continued to receive high marks, and some key metrics continued to grow,” Kircher said.
The 2020 Nebraska State Fair runs Aug. 28 through Sept. 7.