The Nebraska State Fair has tumbled into major financial problems, with a reported $1.4 million loss from this year’s fair. It’s imperative that the fair board and staff restore public confidence that this important statewide institution is being soundly managed.
To help address the problem, the fair board last month laid off 10 of the fair’s 17 full-time employees and enacted a wage freeze. It approved a $700,000 reduction in entertainment costs.
Without question, torrential rains for the past two fair seasons presented problems, as shown by the kayaker who paddled down the flooded main concessions area this year. But the magnitude of the fair’s financial problems extend well beyond those stemming from flood woes.
It’s sobering that the fair board has felt it necessary to take out a $1.1 million line of credit to meet current obligations. Attendance this year was 314,805, down almost 17% from the 2018 total of 379,108.
From 2007 to 2017, the fair had positive balances between $108,000 and $933,000, The World-Herald’s Henry J. Cordes reports. The fair was $24,000 in the red at the end of 2018, and as of October it was running a $1.7 million deficit.
Nebraska has had a state fair through thick and thin for 150 years, and the fair board and staff have a duty to ensure the fair’s continuance into the future. Achieving that goal will require rigorous financial management as well as relationship-building to maintain positive partnerships with vendors, sponsors and volunteers.
It’s unthinkable that a state with an agricultural economy the size and strength of Nebraska’s would be without a viable state fair.
The fair has great importance as a statewide institution and as a central event that spurs young people’s enthusiasm to carry forward Nebraska’s agricultural economy. Each year, the fair salutes the dedicated work of young Nebraskans in raising their animals as part of the competition. Hundreds of 4-H members from across the state eagerly participate.
In addition, the fair offers exceptional educational value for young people. Thousands of students and their teachers participate each year at the fair in the event known as Nebraska’s Largest Classroom, with activities on farm-related issues as well as STEM-focused topics. In addition, the fair’s well-designed exhibits and programs explain a wide range of agricultural topics, sound environmental stewardship and career opportunities in a modern ag sector shaped increasingly by advanced technology and innovation. The many partner organizations, including the University of Nebraska and its Extension staff, that make these efforts possible deserve the public’s applause.
Through these efforts, the fair is a commendable investment in Nebraska’s next generation and the state’s future.
Since moving to Grand Island in 2010, the fair has shown commendable ambition. It has been especially encouraging to see so many volunteers from central Nebraska step forward, year after year, to help make the fair as welcoming and efficient as possible.
But as with any institution, the fair must stay within practical financial limits. Fair leaders must respond strongly to help the fair move beyond the current crisis and into long-term stability.