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Lori Cox, the executive director of the Nebraska State Fair, addresses members of the Rotary club at their Tuesday lunch. Cox gave an update of the fair and showed Rotarians what the previous budget for the fair looked like. She also addressed other concerns that have been floating around the area. (Independent/Carissa Soukup)

Plans are going well for the 2020 Nebraska State Fair as financial problems faced last year are being reconciled and costs are being pared down, said Lori Cox, State Fair executive director.

“Financially, we couldn’t be more solid,” Cox said.

She spoke Tuesday to the Grand Island Rotary Club.

Cox addressed the fair’s business model as a tenant of Fonner Park, who rent the facilities 60 days out of the year and operates only 11 days out of the year. She also spent time debunking ongoing misinformation about the fair operations.

The biggest myth has been that the State Fair was going bankrupt. She said the fair staff has developed a conservative budget that will be presented to the State Fair board.

“The budget was approved in 2020 and we took those approved numbers and compared them to actual December year-end numbers and we are now ready to present an amended budget in March,” Cox said. “It looks better than the budget we had back in October.”

Another myth was that gate admission prices will be increased, but Cox said there will be no increase.

To aid ticket sales for the fair, various promotions prior to the fair will discount ticket costs, such as a Christmas promotion for the sale of carnival wrist bands and gate admissions that Cox said did very well and brought in about $35,000.

Another area where Cox said the State Fair did not increase costs was for vendors who come to the fair to sell food, goods and services. Last month, she said, sign-ups of commercial and food vendors were up 40% from the year before.

Also, this year, the State Fair will be running the fair’s volunteer program. That job was previous handled by the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, which Cox said now will be focusing on workforce development. The State Fair recently hired Judy Trent as its volunteer coordinator. She will work as a full-time employee. Each year, the State Fair welcomes 800 or more volunteers to work during the 11-day event.

Cox also debunked another myth being circulated that volunteers will have to pay to enter the fairgrounds when working as a volunteer.

As the fair works toward financial stability, Cox said, they have reduced this year’s entertainment budget by nearly $600,000 from the previous year, when they had 13 concerts over the 11-day event.

She said the initial reactions and sales of the State Fair’s country concert bundle that includes Dustin Lynch, Jon Pardi and a dual show featuring Clay Walker and Clint Black, have been positive. While the fair will be making future announcements about other concerts, such as the entertainment for Older Nebraskans Day later this month, so far they have been focusing on acts that cost in the area of $150,000 or less, instead of concert acts that approach $450,000 or more.

With no outdoor concerts that can draw larger crowds, concerts at the Heartland Event Center can only accommodate crowds slightly larger than 5,000 people. To keep ticket prices affordable for the public, the lower-cost concert acts are necessary.

Last year, the fair hired a new booking agent, Neste Live, which has given the fair a better framework for pricing of concerts. That relationship also allowed the fair to be a part of Live Nation, an American events promoter, making it possible to achieve its goal of presenting top name performers at affordable prices.

Cox said the Bill Marshall Volleyball Classic will return to the Heartland Events Center this year after being played off-campus last year to accommodate the increased number of concerts at the venue.

While the fair cut it entertainment budget for the big concerts, Cox said they didn’t cut the budget for the many other forms of entertainment the fairgoers enjoy on a daily basis during the fair.

Among the featured acts at this year’s fair, she said, will be Cool Dogs (trick dogs); Doo Wah Riders show; Marc Dobson, the one-man band; Tyzan, a comedy hypnotist/magician; comedians; Dusty Trails, horse rides; Kids Pedal Championships; ranch rodeo; and three days of motor sports.

New attractions at this year’s fair will come through a collaboration with chambers of commerce across the state to promote Nebraska communities. This year’s fair will feature a Central City Day. Cox said they are also negotiating with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to bring back its marching band this year.

She said they are also working with the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a workforce development event at the fair focusing on welding.

Also, Cox said Greg Harder, who is the director of the Aksarben 4-H Stock Show at Fonner Park, will act as interim State Fair agriculture director for this year’s fair.

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