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GRAND ISLAND -- Six years ago, the Nebraska State Fair was in such sad shape in Lincoln that premium payments to winners of judged events had to be canceled.

Friday, in a huge reversal of fortune, the fair will open in its new $40 million home at Fonner Park.

Jana Kruger, state fair board member from Arlington, beamed Thursday as she watched vendors, exhibitors and clean-up crews hustle and bustle to beat the deadline of 5 p.m. Friday for the start of the 11-day event.

"I'm so excited to have people come and see the beautiful new grounds," Kruger said.

Husband Steve, former board chairman and now superintendent of agricultural products, is also pleased.

"I think it's an easy track around here," he said. "People will be able to see everything without wandering aimlessly."

Steve Kruger's main regret is the landscaping work that will have to wait for the next fair. "The only things I miss are the trees," he said of the transition from Lincoln.

The fair left the Capital City in 2009 after more than a century to make the former State Fair Park available for conversion to Innovation Campus, a public and private research setting presided over by the University of Nebraska.

The set-up frenzy a year later in Grand Island suggested that a lot of people had a long way to go before they could put their heads on a pillow.

In every direction, motorized carts, trailers loaded with dairy cows, and workers power walking toward outdoor display areas contributed to a sea of movement.

On nearby Locust Street, merchants were pushing signs into the ground along the curb welcoming visitors to "A Grand Affair."

One man, apparently worried about parking overflow, was moving just as energetically along Locust, one of the city's major thoroughfares, with a "no trespassing" sign.

Richard Groves and daughter Sherry Schniedermeyer arrived at the new fairgrounds at midnight with six registered, pure-bred Jersey cows and six heifers after a 230-mile trip from Skidmore, Mo.

They're awaiting Saturday's open-class dairy competition.

After decades of traveling the familiar path from Skidmore to Lincoln, they had to watch the signs a lot more closely as they neared Fonner Park.

"We came in after dark and we've never been here," said Schniedermeyer. "We didn't know."

The atmosphere seemed much more familiar Thursday.

"It's tremendous -- very, very nice," Groves said as he looked around the cattle holding area a few steps from a milking parlor big enough to accommodate nine cows at a time.

Time will tell if Grand Island can draw big crowds even though it's 100 miles from Lincoln and 150 miles from Omaha.

Executive Director Joseph McDermott and the fair board are intent on reaching out more to an agricultural audience and enhancing agricultural appeal in a barn-red complex that includes hundreds of thousands of square feet of state-of-art livestock exhibition and pen space.

Despite the constant buzz of his cell phone and the knot of people wanting his ear near the Heartland Event Center, McDermott looked and sounded calm Thursday.

"I think it's coming together very nicely," he said. "I've been talking to volunteers, employees, board members. Everybody sounds as if we're on track to a good opening."

He's not going to preoccupy himself with attendance figures. He will be watching closely to see what happens with an annual fair-goer survey.

"The ultimate success to me is the continued high rank, high customer satisfaction rating that we've had for the last 5 to 6 years."

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In one of several fair food pods in front of the livestock arena, Carman Pickering of Bloomington, Ill., looked back on the Illinois State Fair that ended Sunday and ahead to her first Grand Island experience.

"I'm very unsure of the unknown," Pickering said as she contemplated possible sales of corn dogs, Polish sausages, Lemon Shake-Ups and other mainstays at her Midwest Concessions location. "But I'm hopeful that people will show up and that the interest is here."

Pickering had 34 years of uplifting experiences at State Fair Park. All the grass and trees helped make it her favorite of the big fairs on her personal circuit. But the friendly people mattered the most.

"It was almost like coming home to another home," she said.

Connie McKinney of Mallard, Iowa, presiding nearby over preparations at the Grater Taters stand -- also the home of deep-fried pickles, deep-fried Snickers candy bars and other temptations -- is anxious to see the impact of the Nebraska fair's move toward the center of the state.

"I think the first two years will be all right," McKinney said. "Beyond that is questionable."

Sue King of Lincoln and King's Funnel Cakes was happy with her booth placement.

"I like that we're right outside the Heartland Event Center, where the concerts will be held."

Beyond that, she also has mixed feelings. She preferred sleeping in her own bed.

"We were sad to see it move," she said. "But it is what it is."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com

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