With apologies to the legendary Paul Harvey . . .

Published 12/28/2020

by Jennifer Cusick-Rawlinson, Ag Society Board Member 

In this fast-paced world, it’s often a struggle to complete a story.  We all get bits and pieces out of context and sometimes the facts get lost.  As a 4-H parent, show volunteer, and now Ag Society board member, I’d like to try to tell “the rest of the story” of the Lancaster Event Center.

Lancaster Event Center's mission athe new (more on this in a minute) permanent fairgrounds in Lincoln, Nebraska, is to (1) provide a wonderful, welcoming and fun experience at a great value, (2) share experiences in a unique venue that showcases the agricultural nature of Lancaster County, and (3) contribute to the county's youth, culture and economy.  

The Lancaster Event Center is managed by an extremely frugal Lancaster County Agricultural Society, nine unpaid board members just like you that are neighbors, co-workers, and parents in Lancaster County.  The Lancaster County Agricultural Society was established in 1870 to manage the fairgrounds and produce a county fair and manage year-round activities.  Only 12% of Lancaster County residents polled in 2017 said they had never been to the facility.

Yes, Lancaster Event Center is Lancaster County’s fairgrounds but also hosted 400+ events in 2019a 335% increase since 2006.  Over half of these events serve community non-profits and government agencies, including the 10-day traditional county fair with 120,000 visitors to support 4-H/FFA events plus open classes for all ages.  Due to new regional national events made possible by expanded facilities and community partnerships, LEC was expected to grow another 40% in 2020 prior to the pandemic.

COVID-19 came at an inopportune time for many organizations, especially non-profits and organizations in the “gathering place” industry.  The Lancaster Event Center, due to pandemic-related health restrictions, had to close for 3-1/2 months during the facility’s most profitable “people show” season and then was allowed to re-open with 50% maximum capacity restrictions but sustained the cancellation of 150+ of 2020’s scheduled events, followed by a Fall 2020 closing expected to last through early 2021.

Unlike most event facilities, LEC does not receive an operating or capital subsidy and,like most event facilities, LEC is not able to self-fund a significant capital budget but has improved profitability since relaunch and new management team in 2015.  Operating profit 2015-2017 averaged $132,333 on $3.25 million average revenues.

While the Lancaster County Ag Society is grateful for the $0.001391 per $100 of valuation to operate the fair and maintain the fairgrounds, Lancaster’s per capita property tax support is the lowest in the state, just $1.20 compared to $20-$30 per person for Nebraska’s largest counties.  The Ag Society total levy in 2019 was approximately $7 per average household and includes levy as portion of a cent: 0.043 for fair operations, 0.024 for fairgrounds maintenance, and 0.123 for JPA fairgrounds bond payments.

Circling back to the historical significance of having a very young fairgrounds, when the Unicameral moved the State Fair to Grand Island, no renumeration was granted for the 130-year lease Lancaster County had for use of the State Fairgrounds for the annual County Fair.  The Lancaster Event Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, took over hosting duties in 2001 but, due to the State Property Tax Lid Lawin 2000 when the County Fair was only 3 days with 5,000 attendees, the levy rate has decreased from .27 cents to .19 cents since 2006.  Worse yet, the fairgrounds levy is not keeping up with inflation despite dramatic growth of facilities and economic impact of $40 million per year from out-of-county visitors, leaving operations revenue to cover maintenance and depreciation expenses.

After the loss of the State Fair, Lincoln and Lancaster County asked the non-profit Lancaster Event Center to host a 10-day fair and Lancaster County’s Super Fair attendance is now 120,000 over 10 days.  For comparison, the 10-day State Fair posted attendance of 283,468 in 2019.  Funding for Lancaster County’s 10-day Super Fair:  $378,361 plus contributions from Lancaster Event Center annual operations revenue.  Funding for the 10-day State Fair:  The Nebraska Lottery ($4.19 million) plus the City of Grand Island, the Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation, and operations revenue.  According to www.statefair.org, the Nebraska State Fair incurs $7 million in expenses for this event.

There is a misconception that the Lancaster Event Center is funded by the City of Lincoln or Lancaster County but the only public revenue is a $0.002753 per $100 that expires when the bonds for construction are paid, the “mortgage.”  In spite of spinning off $40 million in revenue for private and public organizations, the Event Center receives no city or state support—no sales tax, public staff support, grants, or loans.  Nationally, facilities our size can expect annual public support for operations up to $1 million.

This background story sets the stage for our 2021 preparations, which includes our largest-ever international youth sports event contracted in July and, assuming no further health restrictions, a return of the majority of our 400+ annual events.   Economic impact from out-of-county visitors was on track to grow from $40 million in 2017 to $70 million in 2020 until COVID-19, including $1.285 million in tax revenues (2017 estimate).

The Lancaster Event Center now boasts a top-ten campground with 1,276 sites, one-quarter of which are available year round.  In addition to campsite reservations from those participating in events on the fairgrounds property, additional campsites are being rented by travelers, health care workers, contractors, insurance adjusters, and campers due to a limited supply to keep up with 2020 demand.

In this unusual year, we’ve continued to serve our community as a pandemic services center and provided space for American Red Cross blood drives, Food Bank of Lincoln collection and distributions, State and County socially distanced meeting site, Test Nebraska COVID-19 drive through testing, and a non-profit fundraiser location.

What is the rest of the story of the 20-year-old Lancaster Event Center fairgrounds?  Only time will tell but your 150-year-old Ag Society board is asking for your support to keep our young facility open to serve our community for the next 150 years.  Here’s more information on how to get involved:  https://lancastereventcenter.org/about-us/get-involved/donate