Nebraska State Fair
Lily McWilliams, 2, anxiously awaits her prize at one of the booths in the Nebraska State Fair. (Patrick Breen for the Lincoln Journal Star)

Attendance at the Nebraska State Fair is up almost 20 percent from a year ago, according to figures released Monday for the event's first weekend.

The three-day total for Friday through Sunday is 103,073, compared with 86,676 in 2008.

"Obviously, we have to credit fair weather," Fair Executive Director Joe McDermott said. "The weather was perfect for the three-day run so far. And I'm sure people are coming to the fair to see it at this location before it moves to Grand Island."

Saturday was the big day of the weekend, with a total of 52,235, but the biggest gain from the same day a year ago was Sunday. That admissions count of 40,582 compares with 27,143 last year.

Results for the first three days put the event on a pace to record its sixth consecutive increase in overall attendance. The second weekend, which includes Labor Day, typically provides the biggest attendance spike.

The fair broke through the 300,000 level last year for the first time since 2001.

Among those pleased with the fair's 2009 momentum is Laurie Novak of LoLo's, sellers of hamburgers, bratwursts and other food temptations at two locations near the administration building.

"Outstanding," said Novak. "The crowds, particularly on Saturday, are the best we've seen in years."

Her personal experience, on that point, dates to 1966.

"Certainly, it's the weather," she said, "that chamber of commerce kind of weather - and the fact this is the last year at State Fair Park. I think people are coming out for the last go at that landmark, if you will."

McDermott noted the results for the first Saturday this year are very close to the peak, single-day attendance of 53,000 for the second weekend in 2008. "So Saturday almost beat our biggest day last year."

Not much of a factor in Saturday's success was the first of two special concerts the fair leadership added this year to make a bigger entertainment package and to help cap its long Lincoln tradition.

Daryl Hall and John Oates drew only about 4,000 people to their grandstands concert at $12 a ticket. Capacity there is closer to 8,000.

"That's the first time we've had a concert in front of the grandstands," McDermott said.

The second special concert, featuring country-western artists Montgomery Gentry, will be held there Sunday.

Tuesday's schedule includes the Older Nebraskans Festival and $3 gate admission for those 60 and older.

Among other highlights are the Beef Cattle Show beginning at 10 a.m. at the Beef Barn West, the Frog-Jumping Championships at the KidZone beginning at 11:30 a.m., and the free Bret Michaels concert at the Open Air Auditorium at 7 p.m.

As McDermott and other fair officials close out the last Lincoln fair and look ahead to Grand Island, they're also awaiting the outcome of the Nebraska Supreme Court's recent decision to hear a lawsuit challenging the relocation.

Lincoln resident and co-plaintiff Roger Yant argues the Legislature's decision to put together a $42 million package and free up the fairgrounds for use as a research campus constitutes "special legislation."

Asked for his reaction Monday to the Supreme Court development, McDermott said he thinks it's too late to change course.

"The Legislature created the Nebraska State Fair by statute," he said. "The Legislature moved the Nebraska State Fair to Grand Island, and I think it's the Legislature's decision to make."

Novak is excited about carrying forward with that mission.

"Obviously, as a vendor, I want to support the Nebraska State Fair," she said. "I'll be there."

Reach Art Hovey at 473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

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