It is time to hit reset on the Nebraska State Fair.
With last week’s departure of Executive Director Lori Cox, a serious rift within the State Fair Board and an ongoing investigation into “suspicious activity” in the fair’s finances, the fair is in administrative turmoil.
Following last year’s disastrous fair, which had a reported $1.7 million loss, the fair is in financial turmoil as well.
Some of the financial hit can’t be blamed on the fair’s operations or administration. Heavy rains drenched the fairgrounds, leading to a 10% drop in attendance and a 12% drop in gate revenue.
But significant spending on concerts also was a major contributor to the loss, the second consecutive year the fair has lost money after a decade of success -- and profitable events -- in Grand Island.
The loss forced the board to take out a $1.1 million line of credit, lay off 10 of its 17 employees and reduce entertainment costs by $700,000.
While necessary steps, the layoffs, entertainment cuts and credit payments will weaken the fair for years to come.
The rift in the board, reflected by a series of 6-5 votes, is troubling for two reasons. First, it indicates no strategy for the fair moving forward is acceptable to a broad majority of those appointed to govern it.
Second, board member Jeremy Jensen, one of the five board members losing on the split vote, has stated that there is a “coalition” of six board members who took part in “secret vote counting” regarding Cox’s termination prior to a canceled board meeting last month.
And Legacy Communications, which owns several Grand Island radio stations, sued last year over alleged violations of the open-meetings act, including not following the rules for the use of executive session.
Regardless of whether they are proved to the letter of the law, Jensen’s charges and the suit’s allegations make it imperative that the board operate with the utmost transparency -- if, for no other reason, than to restore its credibility to properly manage the fair.
It also must come up with a plan for future fair operations that is endorsed not only by a broad majority of board members, but by Nebraskans generally -- a task that could take some time.
With health and safety concerns from the novel coronavirus almost certain to continue into late August, when the 2020 fair is slated to begin, suspending the fair for a year could be a wise move on two fronts, preventing a return flare-up of the virus and allowing time for the fair to get its administrative house and finances in order.
While it continues to face challenges of getting people from Lincoln, Omaha and their suburbs -- more than half the state’s population -- to go west for the carnival, livestock shows, food and entertainment, the fair has, until the last two years, been a success in Grand Island.