Recent heavy rains have Nebraska State Fair officials exploring alternative plans on parking if the grass parking lots at Fonner Park are too soft to accommodate the large number of vehicles expected for the fair on its opening weekend starting Aug. 23.
“Due to moisture levels at our grass parking lots, we are preparing for the possibility of shuttling all guests to the Nebraska State Fair from pickup locations across the city,” said Lori Cox, executive director of the Nebraska State Fair. “Our current shuttle provider, Holiday Express, will be ramping up additional shuttles in conjunction with this effort.”
On Thursday, Grand Island received more than an inch of rain. For the month, Grand Island has received more than 6 inches of rain and more was expected Thursday evening and Friday.
Back in 2014, the State Fair experienced the same problem with the grass parking lots at Fonner Park. A rainy week with more than 2.5 inches of precipitation turned the State Fair’s grass parking lots into temporary lakes and caused minor flooding on the fairgrounds. State Fair officials at the time had employees dumping gravel in the lots to try to ease some of the mud issues. Pumper trucks were also used in the parking lots and on the fairgrounds to vacuum up water and remove it from the grounds.
The parking area off Stolley Park Road was also impacted that year from the heavy rain, along with the east parking area, near Thompson Arena, though the overflow parking off Stuhr Road wasn’t as bad.
Cox said the same situation exists now with parking around the fairgrounds. Starting Saturday, the forecast for Grand Island does not mention rain and temperatures will be in the 90s at the beginning of the week. If the forecast holds, that will allow fair officials to come up with some strategies to deal with the excessively wet grounds.
Fonner Park isn’t the only place in Grand Island where the ground is saturated with water.
Groundwater tables are high throughout the community. Much of the tree damage from last week’s wind storm was due to the soft ground that weakened the stability of the trees’ root systems.
Opening weekend for the fair can draw as many as 100,000 people to the fairgrounds, especially this year when the fair is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Also, on opening day, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting at the fair.
While there are shuttle buses to take visitors to the fair from throughout Grand Island, more than 90 percent of the fair’s attendees depend on the parking at the fairgrounds.
As part of the fair’s contingency plan, Cox and community leaders are looking to secure and reserve large paved lots throughout town that would be able to provide additional support parking for the fair.
“We could dearly use the space,” Cox said.
She said they currently have pickup locations at Conestoga Mall, Sam’s Club and Walmart South.
“We want to be ready if we have to go that direction,” Cox said. “We could surely add additional stops to help with large volumes of riders shuttling to the fair for the 150th Fairabration and 10th birthday in Grand Island. We want to have this shelf ready that if it looks bad on Aug. 23, we can go into this mode of parking off site for everybody.”
As part of the contingency plan, she is also trying to line up more buses if they cannot park people at the fairgrounds because of the wet parking lots.
“Imagine how many buses we need if all 70,000 people who would come on a single day need to be bused in,” Cox said. “That is what we are grappling with right now.”