Eight years into the Nebraska State Fair’s run in Grand Island, attendance at the August tradition has now exceeded the final fair in Lincoln.
With a reported attendance of 379,108, the number of fairgoers – which has risen every year since the event moved to central Nebraska – in 2017 was roughly equivalent to one in five Nebraskans. The state fair is nearing the all-time record of 389,171 set in Lincoln 20 years ago.
Whether it’s because of bigger-name acts for concerts, increases in attendance from the Omaha and Lincoln areas or other circumstances, the State Fair’s success at Grand Island’s Fonner Park – and development at its former home in the capital city – has vindicated for both sides its move in 2010.
Moving to Grand Island from Lincoln is increasingly evident as a victory for both cities. Central Nebraska gained a marquee attraction that would draw hundreds of thousands to the Tri-Cities area. Lincoln has revived the former State Fair Park, on prime real estate that sat adjacent to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as the Nebraska Innovation Campus.
What makes Nebraska’s success even more impressive is that it created what was essentially an entirely new State Fair in Grand Island. It appears no other state has moved a fair away from its major population centers in decades – and, in less than a decade, attendance at Fonner Park has already exceeded the fair’s farewell to Lincoln and trending toward breaking its all-time record.
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Many states have several regional fairs, while others have expos that compete for top billing in their states – including six in Pennsylvania and four apiece in Texas and Washington. Most states with a single fair, including the storied ones in Iowa and Minnesota, have long held them in or around the capital city.
Of Midwestern states with fairs located away from capital cities or population centers, all have historic roots there. State fairs in Colorado (Pueblo), Kansas (Hutchinson), Missouri (Sedalia), South Dakota (Huron) and Wyoming (Douglas) date back more than a century at their locations. Grand Island and Nebraska represent the absolute outlier, albeit a successful one.
For something to be truly unprecedented is very difficult. But there is no modern-day comparison for the Nebraska State Fair’s relocation to Grand Island – and subsequent rapid growth.
Grand Island has nurtured, nourished and grown the Nebraska State Fair, now its own shining attraction. Lincoln has converted the former fairgrounds into a hub for business and development. Consistent increases in attendance for the former and booming development for the latter has turned the fair’s move into a win-win.