A special study session at the Grand Island City Council meeting on Tuesday looked at Fonner Park’s future and how to sustain the continued growth of the facilities over the last decade.

During the meeting, representatives of the Nebraska State Fair, Grow Grand Island and Fonner Park gave presentations discussing their plans and operations involving Fonner Park and the Nebraska State Fair. There was also a question and answer session, and the members of the audience were challenged by Grand Island Mayor Jeremy Jensen to come together and collectively develop a long-term sustainable plan to grow Fonner Park.

Jensen set the bar high, saying he would like to see Fonner Park set a goal of one million or more visitors per year. He said that can only be achieved by getting all the stakeholders together to develop a long-term plan for the next decade or more.

Without the collaboration of stakeholders, Jensen said it would represent a serious “barrier to success.”

Since the early 1950s, Fonner Park has been a centerpiece in drawing visitors to Grand Island. It started with horse racing, then the opening of the Heartland Events Center in 2006, and then the Nebraska State Fair in 2010.

The more than $40 million that was allocated by state lawmakers to relocate the State Fair from Lincoln to Grand Island helped to build a series of livestock and exposition buildings. Those facilities, along with the Heartland Events Center, has contributed to attracting national livestock shows and other events on a year-round basis.

Along with the State Fair, those events bring more than 500,000 visitors to Grand Island annually. But Jensen would like to see that number surpass one million. The more visitors who come to town because of those facilities, the more revenue is generated by hotels, restaurants and retail businesses.

Making the presentation for the Nebraska State Fair was Executive Director Lori Cox. She said next year, the Nebraska State Fair will celebrate both its 150th anniversary and its 10th year in Grand Island. She said over the last 10 years, Grand Island has become synonymous with the State Fair, which has helped to elevate the community’s stature throughout the state.

Cox said she and her staff, along with the input of the Nebraska State Fair board, are developing a long-term plan to grow the State Fair. That plan includes concerts, livestock, and infrastructure priorities.

Cox said it is crucial not only to maintain the livestock buildings for the thousands of people and animals during the fair, but also for the many national livestock shows and other events that come to Grand Island annually.

Cox said they have completed an engineering report that identifies what areas of the grounds are in need of repairs. These areas include the Fonner Park concourse, parking lots, storm water and drainage issues, access improvements for people who have handicaps, developing more space for recreational vehicles, expansion of existing buildings and new buildings when needed.

Cox also said they are looking at many different options when it comes to outdoor concerts at the State Fair, such as building a permanent outdoor pavilion outside of Fonner Park racetrack infield, where the outdoor concerts were previously held. This year, State Fair officials had to cancel the outdoor concert series because of safety concerns brought about by weather. They are also exploring different ways of booking popular artists at an affordable price. These issues will be discussed at the next State Fair board meeting at Fonner Park on Friday, Oct. 26.

Another issue that was discussed was how to better market the facilities at Fonner Park on a national level. Fonner Park officials told the council that they are working with a national marketing firm to help with this.

Other audience members brought up the need to invest in the marketing of the facilities in order to meet Jensen’s stated goal.

Jensen said it is essential to look at the bigger picture.

“We can only achieve that goal by collectively working together,” he said.

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I cover business, ag and general reporting for the GI Independent.

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