This is a big one.

The Nebraska State Fair that opens Friday in Grand Island will be the 150th edition of an event that annually celebrates the state with a sharp focus on agriculture.

And this will be the 10th state fair in Grand Island, where the big, statewide celebration moved when the state fairgrounds in Lincoln became the site for development of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Innovation Campus.

There'll be an incredible 1,165 events during the fair's 11-day run this year, says Lori Cox, the fair's enthusiastic and energetic new executive director.

Including a ground-breaking Sunday afternoon polo match in the heart of Nebraska.

But expect all the traditional and enduring aspects of the State Fair to still be there: horses and livestock, baby ducks and goats, carnival rides, moms with strollers, fireworks, a variety of musical entertainment, including high school marching bands on the midway.

Exhibits and booths, competitive events and the always challenging array of fair food. Corn dogs and cherry nut ice cream, along with a huge 150th birthday cake.

"We understand that this is the people's fair," Cox says. "This is your fair that you built 150 years ago."

That's the approach Cox has taken since she was hired as executive director of the State Fair last year and moved to Nebraska from Bozeman, Montana, where she was general manager of the Big Sky Country Fair.

Cox describes State Fair attendees as "a reflecting pool of Nebraskans."

And this year's fair has been carefully structured and programmed to meet their interests.

"We are programming to the marketplace," Cox said, reflecting her marketing background.

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"Who's coming? Who's missing? What is the entertainment people want to come and see?"

What's missing includes large numbers of 18- to 30-year-olds, she said, "and we have to tackle that problem."

Music could be the lure, and so this year's entertainment fare of 12 concerts includes a rock series, along with hot country and the opportunity to bundle tickets to three shows for $79, a price that will include gate admission.

The State Fair attracted 314,805 fairgoers last year, a slide from the nearly 350,000 average at Grand Island, but the attendance dip was tied largely to rainy weather during the fair.

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"We are vulnerable to the weather," Cox said.

Nebraska's State Fair is "special because of its livestock exhibitions," she said, having earned recognition and acclamation for having the finest exhibition buildings in the country.

"I have never been in a state where the value and position of agriculture is so crazy-good," Cox said. "People really stand up for agriculture and it shows at the State Fair."

The ongoing challenge is attracting fairgoers from the state's metro-complex in Omaha, Lincoln and Sarpy County.

Forty percent of fairgoers identify themselves as ag-based and 63% hail from central Nebraska. Twenty percent are seniors. What has ranged from 12 to 18% of fairgoers identify with eastern Nebraska's metro-complex.

The huge Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, which regularly attracts more than 100,000 people per day, has been a competitor among fairgoers in metropolitan Omaha.

Check out the fair schedule at statefair.org.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.


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