The effects of several financially difficult years for the Nebraska State Fair were reflected in a new budget passed by the fair board on Friday.
The board met on a Zoom conference call.
In 2019, the State Fair suffered from heavy August rains that made the grass parking lots at Fonner Park unusable for visitor parking. That caused the fair to make unbudgeted expenditures for transportation to get people to the fairgrounds from parking areas throughout town.
It was also the fair’s 150th celebration and extra money was budgeted for entertainment and other expenses. Because of the rain, fair attendance was down and there was a major loss of revenue.
Then this year, the coronavirus pandemic affected fair attendance, though the fair board budgeted appropriately to reflect the lost revenue.
Terry Galloway, who is the executive of the Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation, has been acting as the fair’s temporary accountant.
He reported to the fair board on Friday that because of good financial management during the pandemic and the help of Nebraska Lottery funds, the fair will have a cash balance at the end of the year of about $1.7 million.
Last year, at this time, that balance was about $1.7 million in the hole.
“That’s a tremendous improvement,” Galloway told the board.
Galloway also provided good news to the board about the Aksarben Stock Show. He said that while the stock show again will be in the red budget-wise this year by about $10,000, it is a dramatic improvement compared to previous years when the Stock Show lost much more money.
The Nebraska State Fair has overseen the Aksarben Stock Show since it moved from its longtime home in Omaha three years ago. This year, fair organizers were able to draw youth livestock exhibitors from 14 states to the stock show at Fonner Park. This was the biggest event in Grand Island during the pandemic-troubled year.
Galloway also credited good financial management for the improved financial condition of the stock show.
In discussion on the 2020-21 Nebraska State Fair budget, State Fair Executive Director Bill Ogg praised both the staff and board members for coming up with the new budget.
“It was a real team effort,” Ogg said.
He said the budget for the 2021 State Fair will be on average, $3 million less than State Fair budgets in recent years.
Ogg said the fair budget will be conservative on both expense and revenue projections. He said that’s because there are still many unknowns when it comes to 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic and how that will affect booking entertainment, the carnival and other attractions that draw people to the fair.
The Nebraska State Fair was one of the few fairs that were held this year across the country. There were no national entertainment acts or carnival, but fair organizers were able to showcase both 4-H and FFA youths at the pared-down fair. There were also commercial exhibitors and food booths, but both were down in number.
Ogg said the new budget takes a cautious approach due to the uncertainties that exist because of the pandemic. While there is a vaccine, it will still take many months before it is distributed to a wide number of people. Also, there is the economic uncertainty due to the current effects of the pandemic and questions about how long it will take for the economy to regain the strength it exhibited prior to the pandemic.
He said while the budget is conservative in its projections, he and his staff, along with the board, will be more proactive and take advantage of opportunities that may appear as the nation recovers.
Ogg said the new budget also will reflect a new approach to how the fair is staffed and managed.
He said the fair now has half the personnel it had a year ago. They are looking for a new agriculture director and the position of chief of operations will change to deputy fair director. Jaime Parr, who is currently director of sales, will take that position.
Parr, who helped put the new budget together, gave the board an overview of the numbers. She said because of the uncertainties of the pandemic in 2021, the new budget projects an attendance of about 300,000 people, which is about the number of people who attended the 2018 State Fair.
She said the fair peaked at about 380,000 in 2017, but has seen a steady decline in attendance since then because of the extenuating circumstances.
Because of those uncertainties, Parr said revenues, such as the carnival, have been pared down. She said the entertainment concert budget is at $325,000 with an anticipated four or five national acts being booked for the fair.
She said the budget also reflects more than $1 million in various sponsorships to the fair. Total wages, including staff, contract help and seasonal employees, will be budgeted at $1.4 million.
Parr said nearly all areas of the budget reflect the conservative approach they will take in planning the upcoming fair.
Fair board member Jeremy Jensen of Grand Island, voted against the budget, along with Chris Kircher of Omaha.
Jensen on Thursday sent an email outlining his objections to the proposed budget, as he also stated during the board meeting.
In his objections to the budget, he said he thought there should have been more public discussion. The comment reflected his concerns about whether the budget addressed many of the irregularities that auditors and others had found in previous State Fair budgets and accounting practices.
Jensen pointed out that of the State Fair’s budgeted revenues for 2021, $9.258 million — 47.5% of it — comes from Nebraska Lottery procedures and from the city of Grand Island. He said because nearly half of the State Fair’s revenue comes from governmental sources, there should be more publicly held meetings when it comes to fair finances.
He said the new budget does show a turnaround of $1.9 million and a projected profit of $600,000.
But he said that just finishing in the black shouldn’t be the goal of the State Fair.
While the fair is spending less on entertainment and promotion, Jensen believes salaries for the fair’s top executive staff are too high and that many of the responsibilities of the new deputy fair director should be the responsibilities of the fair’s executive director, such as budget priorities.
He also said he still has unanswered questions about seasonal contracts and wages, especially during the 2019 fair.
He listed many examples of salaries being paid to people in 2019 where there was no oversight. Jensen said contracts have yet to be found for a few of those employees and several others are “still complete unknowns.”
Jensen said he also would like to see more accountability from the fair to the city of Grand Island, which provides $400,000 annually to fair operations.
Ogg responded by saying that he is available to both Grand Island and Hall County government officials when it comes to questions about the State Fair.
Jensen’s term on the State Fair board ended on Friday and he said he didn’t plan to serve another term.