OMAHA - The Nebraska State Fair is already settling into its new home in Grand Island, but the courts have yet to settle the question of whether the move was legal.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Feb. 9 about whether the 2008 law requiring the fair to move from Lincoln to Grand Island is constitutional. In the meantime, the state fair staff will continue preparing to hold the first fair outside of Lincoln in 110 years.
Nebraska State Fair Executive Director Joseph McDermott says he and his staff has spent the past four months moving 40 semi-truckloads full of equipment from Lincoln to Grand Island.
"We're busy planning the 2010 fair," he said.
The State Fair organization has also reduced the size of its staff because the group won't own and maintain the new buildings being built in Grand Island, like it did with the buildings in Lincoln. So for McDermott, the prospect of having to reverse the move is unthinkable.
"In my mind, it would be virtually impossible to make that move," he said.
But that possibility will remain until the state Supreme Court rules in the case. The lawsuit was dismissed last year by a Lancaster County judge, but the plaintiffs hope it will be reinstated.
The legal challenge to the state fair move focuses on whether the law requiring the move created a special benefit for some of the groups and people involved in the plan, like the nonprofit group that owns Fonner Park and the University of Nebraska. And the lawsuit says lawmakers didn't seem to consider other options besides Grand Island.
"There is no indication of focused consideration of any other location, and the committee let drop a bill that would have set up a commission to study the fair's future and its best location," Bellevue lawyer Raymond Waldon wrote on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Two businessmen concerned about losing money after the fair moves and a Grand Island resident who objected to the additional taxes needed locally to finance Grand Island's $8.5 million share of the $42 million move filed the lawsuit. Roger Yant of Lincoln and Brian von Seggern of Adams are the businessmen. Jerry Christensen is the Grand Island resident.
The state argues that the law requiring the fair move should be upheld because the move was designed to benefit Nebraska, not certain individuals.
"Providing the funding to move the state fair to a new location and providing the old fair site for the university's planned development as an Innovation Campus are both entirely driven by the Legislature's determination of public benefit, not its granting of special favors to a privileged few," the state's lawyers wrote.
And the state also says the Legislature had been studying the possibility of moving the fair for some time. So even if a study wasn't launched in 2008, lawmakers had past studies to rely on when choosing to move the fair to Grand Island.
The law authorizing the move was the culmination of months of dealmaking between parties interested in having the fair, state officials and leaders of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The University of Nebraska took over the old fairgrounds and plans to convert the land into a research park with a mix of public and private labs. University officials lobbied hard to get the current fairgrounds, which are near the Lincoln campus.
After it was approved, a group Yant helped organize called Fair Vote Nebraska began a petition drive to put the move on the November ballot. The group fell short of the roughly 60,000 signatures it needed to collect by the deadline to force a vote.
This year's state fair in Grand Island is scheduled to be held from Aug. 27 to Sept. 6.