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New dawn for Nebraska State Fair

After a pared-down COVID version in 2020, the Nebraska State Fair is poised for a breakout year in Grand Island in 2021.

Bill Ogg loves a good fair. And he has lived this passion for fairs throughout his professional career. Growing up in Wyoming, Ogg’s first job out of college when he was 25 years old was executive director of the Wyoming State Fair — he was the youngest state fair executive director in the nation at that time. He has been managing big fairs ever since, most recently as general manager for Walla Walla Fair and Frontier Days in Walla Walla, Wash.

Ogg made the move closer to his old stomping grounds when he walked for the first time into his Nebraska State Fair executive director’s office, at the state fairgrounds at Fonner Park in Grand Island, on June 21 last year. At that time, the Nebraska State Fair was dealing with the possibility of not having a 2020 fair due to COVID-19 restrictions.  

Although there were challenges, Ogg helped the Nebraska State Fair navigate COVID-19 last year with an altered version that focused on 4-H and FFA youth. This year, he is ready to oversee a fully functional fair for the first time since moving to Nebraska.

Nebraska Farmer sat down with Ogg at the state fairgrounds recently to talk about his first year at the job, and about some of the new things being offered at the 152-year-old event in 2021, which runs from Aug. 27 through Sept. 6.

“What I’ve learned in the past year is that the state fair is extremely important to Nebraskans,” Ogg says. “The support from the community of Grand Island and from Nebraskans is just tremendous. Some of our regular sponsors unfortunately did not survive the COVID economy, but many of our other sponsors have stepped up in a big way and offered even more than they had in the past.”

In addition to Ogg, the state fair welcomed two new board members. Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Tom Dinsdale as the Grand Island representative, and Tom Schellpeper from Stanton as the Nebraska Association of Fair Managers District 3 representative. Department heads joining the staff this spring were Gary Kubicek, marketing director; Holle Evert, director of sales; and Vaughn Sievers, agriculture director.

Separate weekends for 4-H and FFA

4-H and FFA exhibitors will be showing on separate weekends this year, which is a continuation from 2020 as implemented for separation and distancing required to host the youth exhibitions. Families found that they liked the new format, so the state fair will repeat that schedule, Ogg says. “Having them come in on separate weekends does make another trip for families exhibiting in both 4-H and FFA,” Ogg says. “And hosting those shows on separate weekends has displaced some of the open-class shows traditionally scheduled on opening weekend of the fair,” he explains. “We have worked with the groups involved in the open-class shows that are impacted and tried to come up with suitable solutions. In most cases, but not all, we have been able to do that.”

There is a strong agricultural literacy focus to the fair, not only in the popular interactive Raising Nebraska exhibits and displays in the Nebraska Building, but also through the milking parlor, where visitors can watch cows being milked. There is the birthing pavilion, where guests are treated to sows birthing baby pigs, cows having calves, ewes that are lambing, and baby chicks that are hatching. For urban residents, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn about livestock husbandry, Ogg says. The birthing pavilion is working on new live additions to the livestock lineup, along with livestreaming the birthing events.

At the horse racetrack at Fonner Park, Nebraska State Fair offers something that no other fair does. “I don’t know of anywhere else where — as a visitor to the fair — you don’t just have the opportunity to see a combine up close, but you can actually ride around the track in one,” Ogg explains. “Sure, that isn’t like driving a combine in the field at harvest, but it is a unique experience for many fairgoers who haven’t been around that kind of farm machinery before.”

Concerts galore

With no concerts, carnivals or other major entertainment allowed on the midway because of COVID-19 in 2020, this year’s Nebraska State Fair is sure to entertain visitors with a full lineup of four concerts, including an Older Nebraskans Day concert planned for the air-conditioned comfort of the Heartland Event Center. Three outdoor concerts are planned for the infield of the training horse track area east of Fonner Park grandstand Sept. 2-4, leading into Labor Day Sept. 6. Final headline acts have not yet been named. While there is always risk from the weather in outdoor concerts. Ogg notes that the venue and atmosphere around those concerts is appealing to concert fans.

Indian relay races, hosted by Horse Nations Indian Relay Council, will be a new event. Ogg says this event showcases the athleticism of Indian jockeys and their horses from seven Nations in eight Western states and Canada, and was very popular at his previous job at the Walla Walla fairgrounds. The annual Bill Marshall Memorial volleyball classic is back this year, in addition to the state fair YMCA Marathon set for Aug. 28. There will be horse, truck and tractor pulls; draft horse events; a demolition derby; antique tractors; horse-drawn wagons; marching bands; a cheer and dance exhibition; daily parades; and Nebraska’s Largest Classroom, a self-guided tour for K-6 teachers and students. There will also be more than 60 food concessions, and the safe and fun Wade Shows Carnival. There will truly be “nothing more Nebraskan” than this year’s Nebraska State Fair, Ogg says.

Financial stability

When Ogg came into the job, there were financial concerns about the future of the fair. The 2019 fair was plagued with heavy rains, causing much lower attendance. Today, funded by the Nebraska Lottery to the tune of nearly $4 million — along with financial support from sponsors, the city of Grand Island, the Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation and revenue from fair operations — the financial situation has stabilized considerably. The low-key, youth-focused 2020 fair, which still saw attendance of around 50,000, charged no admission and had no carnival or entertainment; however, expenses were much less, leaving money in the bank at the end.

“Lottery revenue this year has been up,” Ogg says. This places the state fair on solid financial ground, combined with added support from annual contributors and a watchful eye to keep expenses under control.

Elite, an Iowa-based casino operator, is planning to build a $100 million casino resort at Fonner Park, that’s scheduled to open in 2022. This new casino will affect the footprint of the state fair, Ogg says. It is to be located on part of the grounds where the carnival is normally set up. Ogg notes that fair management is making plans moving forward that will accommodate the fair and casino operations. A bill supported by the State Fair Board was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts this spring, allowing the casino to stay open during the state fair. Ogg believes the addition of the casino will be a positive development for Fonner Park, which ultimately helps the state fair.

Fair with a history

With average attendance at around 300,000, the Nebraska State Fair may not be the biggest — but when it comes to facilities and festivities, Nebraska is high on the list of being the best. Raising Nebraska is a year-round interactive agricultural display that buzzes with activity: big arenas and pavilions that house 4-H and FFA static exhibits, huge vendor fair and general exhibits, along with all 4-H, FFA and open-class livestock and animal shows including the spacious Five Points Bank Arena, Dinsdale Automotive Cattle Barn, Aurora Cooperative Pavilion, Pinnacle Bank Expo Center and the Sheep Barn.

The state fair in Nebraska started in 1859, eight years before Nebraska became a state. First held at Nebraska City, it was moved to Brownville, and bounced between Omaha and Lincoln until 1901, when Lincoln became the permanent home. In 2008, LB1116 allowed the State Fair to relocate to Fonner Park at Grand Island, and the former fairgrounds in Lincoln became the Nebraska Innovation Campus. The first Nebraska State Fair to be held in Grand Island was in 2010, with much celebration and fanfare surrounding the move at the time.

You can learn all the details of the 2021 Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island online at statefair.org.

 

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