GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — David Webster admits he was apprehensive about the Nebraska State Fair's move to this central Nebraska city in 2010.
A third-generation peddler of housewares at fairs and expositions across the country, Webster said he has seen fairs trend up and down.
And because the mood at the old fairgrounds in Lincoln was pretty bleak, he said, he wasn't ready to go “all in” at the new fairgrounds.
Webster said stuck with the same number of booths — 10 — that he had rented in Lincoln to sell cheese graters, steam irons, mops and other items.
Now, however, he has built up to nearly twice that number: 19.
The growth of Webster's sales outlets illustrates not only that people have returned to the Nebraska State Fair, but so have the businesses and institutions that seek sales and public relations exposure at such events.
» The fair had 30 to 35 food vendors in its first year here — about half of the number for the last event in Lincoln — but now is up to 65 to 70.
» To attract midway rides the first year in Grand Island, the State Fair had to guarantee a certain income to the amusement rides vendor. This year, three companies competed to provide the rides, and there was no need for a guarantee.
» After skipping the first fair in Grand Island, the popular University of Nebraska-Lincoln Dairy Store is back for a second year, dishing up its unique 4-H Clover Mint chip ice cream.
» Paid and in-kind sponsorships from businesses totaled approximately $950,000 this year, nearly four times more than in 2010.
“Look at the crowds out here today,” said Webster, who is based in Houston. “It's definitely been a ... turnaround.”
Traffic backed up on South Locust Street as vehicles began entering the fairgrounds Sunday, traditionally the biggest attendance day.
Long lines snaked out of the Nebraska Cattlemen's Beef Pit cafe, and shoppers filled the aisles at the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center, where you could buy a salt lamp “that can change your life” or a German glue billed as “the last glue you'll ever need!”
A big crowd also is expected Labor Day, when people bringing a can or box of food can get half-price admission of $5. Labor Day is the fair's final day.
Joseph McDermott, the fair's executive director, and Jaime Parr, who rents space to exhibitors, said a combination of factors prompted vendors to expand or return to the State Fair. Good attendance is good for business, but having new buildings and grounds hasn't hurt either, they said. “It's the success we've had out here,” McDermott said of the turnaround.
Another new building is on the way. Now under construction, the Nebraska Building will add 28,000 square feet of exhibit space next year. The space has already been rented.
The building itself will provide a year-round venue for University of Nebraska programs on agriculture and gardening, and for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's hunter safety courses.
The Game and Parks complex at the old fairgrounds in Lincoln was a showplace, with a huge aquarium of giant fish and a complex of buildings in which to shoot air rifles and arrows, buy park permits, and chat with game wardens and Nebraskaland magazine photographers.
Only two people manned the agency's small booth on Sunday, but that will change next year. The Nebraska Building will have an archery range, shooting gallery and a waterfall similar to those seen in Cabela's stores, according to Tam Allan, a State Fair board member involved in developing the new building.
The new building might have an aquarium, if grant funding can be obtained. “It will be a much bigger presence than they had in Lincoln,” Allan said.
As he dumped french fries and onion straws into deep-fat fryers at his Outlaw Fries food stand, Lenny Freund of Sedalia, Mo., said he has expanded from just a single stand selling slushies.
“Obviously we want to be partnered with the fairs that are on the way up,” said Freund, who has operated stands at five state fairs in recent weeks.
Webster, the Houston-based vendor, said Grand Island enthusiastically embraced the fair, and the facilities and management are top notch.
“They did everything right when they moved here,” he said.