Lancaster Event Center will get a $3.2 million upgrade, as long as it ropes a coveted high school rodeo competition.
The center is in the running to host the National High School Finals Rodeo in 2020 and 2021. The rodeo attracts 1,650 contestants and their families from 43 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia. For the host town, that translates to a $16 million economic impact per event, according to information from the National High School Rodeo Association.
That's equal to about four Husker football home games.
“This is actually the world’s largest rodeo from a contestant perspective,” Event Center Managing Director Amy Dickerson said during a Tuesday presentation to Lancaster County Commissioners.
The County Board signed off on two grants worth about $3 million to cover most of upgrading the center to accommodate the rodeo. The money comes from the Visitors Improvement Fund, which collects lodging tax revenue. About $190,000 is being diverted from grant money already marked for Event Center improvements, while $2.8 million would be new grant dollars.
But the grants come with a major condition: The Lancaster Event Center must be picked to host the rodeo.
The National High School Rodeo Association won’t decide until mid-January, but Dickerson said having the grants in place to show a willingness to support the rodeo is key to getting it.
Planned upgrades would happen east of the existing event center and include an expanded outdoor multipurpose arena, a 3,400-seat covered outdoor grandstand, a loop to improve traffic flow around the grounds, and expanding and upgrading campgrounds to 750 electric spots from the current 200 and adding water to 362 spots.
Dickerson said the upgrades will also allow the center to attract other new large events and offer more space for existing attractions.
The high school rodeo finals include bucking horses, bulls, barrel racing and team roping, as well as shooting sports. Alongside the rodeo would be a trade show with 330 vendors.
Getting the rodeo for 2020 and 2021 would put Lincoln in the running to host it again in rotation with the Wyoming towns of Gillette and Rock Springs. If that happens, Lincoln could be home to the event eight times by 2040.
Dickerson said the Event Center will be looking for additional funding and sponsorships, including offering naming rights for the new outdoor arena.
The Event Center employs more than 200 people and hosts more than 300 events annually, including the largest indoor farm show west of the Mississippi, the National Bonus Barrel Race Finals, the Shrine Circus and the Lancaster County Super Fair.
The nonprofit center is in its 15th year and is owned and operated by the Lancaster County Ag Society.