It’s calm this day, less than a week after one of the largest shows to fill the Lancaster Event Center each year has ended.
Two contractors are finishing renovations in the Good Times Grill.
Eight inmates from the Lancaster County jail roll up carpet that had covered the dirt floor in Pavilion 4 for the Nebraska Power Farming Show.
Some Event Center staff prepare for an upcoming cattle show, cleaning up debris here and there.
But even with so little taking place, excitement is in the air in the nearly 15-year-old building that hosts more than 270 shows and 300,000 visitors a year.
“I’m turning away groups all the time,” said Managing Director Amy Dickerson.
The center started nearly $2.6 million in renovation work. The money was raised in August 2014, when county officials refinanced bonds used to build the place.
Lodging revenue from the county Visitors Improvement Fund also has provided $400,000 a year to the Event Center for the past four years and will provide one more installment next year.
The money has gone toward a new wireless Internet network, improved lighting, facelifts for cafés and upgrades to a campground.
“We focused on improving the experience,” Dickerson said.
Some of the most visible changes are to three cafés in the 400,000-square-foot Event Center. Facades have been updated on the Horseshoe Café, Good Times Grill and Clover Café. Reclaimed barnwood, improved lighting and digital signs also have been added.
And The General Store, built from a repurposed animal shower in Pavilion 2, was finished Nov. 1 and sells snacks, beverages and camping items.
“This ended up being a really strong seller for us,” Dickerson said.
Tom Kirshenbaum of the Nebraska Quarter Horse Association said improved floors in the center led to increased attendance at two horse shows the association hosted this year.
The Cornhusker Classic and Silver Classic each saw more than 500 horses and 1,500 exhibitors, he said. That compares to about 400 horses and 300 to 500 exhibitors each last year.
“I attribute a lot of that to the fact that the Event Center made a major effort to improve the ground at the arenas,” he said. “That’s a major part for why people come or don’t come to the horse shows.”
He said quarter horse owners are particular, in part because some quarter horses can cost as much as $100,000.
“The ground at the Event Center used to be terrible,” he said. “Now it is considered really good horse show ground.”
He said Dickerson’s efforts have led some major horse event organizers to inquire about moving their events to Lincoln.
Karen Wobig with Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County said changes -- especially in signage -- have made it more user-friendly for youth and parents involved in county 4-H programs and the Lancaster County Super Fair.
“The advantage to having a place that is user-friendly and easy to get around in is absolutely vital to our success out there,” she said.
Perhaps more important than the facility improvements, a newfound sense of purpose has infused the Event Center, and some say Dickerson is the reason for that.
Andy Goodman, president of the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, said staff was instrumental in helping the association host its annual Nebraska Power Farming Show Dec. 8-10.
With 800 vendors and 2,400 booth spaces, the show filled up nearly every square inch of the complex, and staff worked hard to find creative ways to fill open spaces, even opening up a breezeway between Pavilions 1 and 2, Goodman said.
“It’s a vast improvement under Amy’s leadership, and we’re very appreciative of that,” he said. “I think that will lead to tremendous success for the facility.”
Lancaster County Commissioner Todd Wiltgen, who chairs the joint public agency that oversees the Event Center’s bond payments, said Dickerson, who was hired in March 2014 to succeed Ron Snover, has a strong business background and has used it to improve revenue and raise funds for improvements at the Event Center.
“She’s doing a great job as far as the facilities themselves,” he said.
Before Dickerson’s arrival, the center struggled to raise money for improvements and its staff faced criticism from vendors upset about being unable to host events there.
County Commissioner Bill Avery praised Dickerson for re-energizing the place.
“She came in with abundant energy, intelligence, new ideas,” he said. “She put a spark in that place. Frankly, that’s the difference.”