GRAND ISLAND — A restructuring of the Nebraska State Fair staff resulted in eight full-time employees losing their jobs last week.
Those individuals were told the bad news on Monday.
Before the reduction, the fair had 17 full-time employees and one part-timer.
State Fair Executive Director Lori Cox said the move was a complete restructuring of the organization.
“The reduction was approximately 50 percent,” Cox said.
The Ak-Sar-Ben stock show staff was not affected. That group continues to have three employees.
“All the reduction was borne by the State Fair side,” she said.
Cox estimates the restructuring will save about $520,000 in personnel costs.
“Some departments obviously were impacted greatly,” she said.
The changes adopt a new business model. Under the old model, people were on the payroll as if the fair was a 365-day operation “when in fact we are an 11-day operation, and therein lies the very difficult challenge of sustainability,” Cox said.
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One of the things that’s most difficult in management is making sure that the organization is sustainable, she said.
“The existing model was continually challenged for sustainability, particularly so in light of back-to-back weather events that were very, very difficult in ’18 and ’19,” she said.
As executive director, Cox said, she has had ongoing conversations “with the State Fair board for the past two years regarding my concern about the sustainability.”
She said she knows personally how hard downsizing is.
“I have personally gone through it myself,” Cox said.
It’s not an easy thing to bear, both for those who lose their jobs and “the remaining staff to have to see their colleagues not be able to return,” she said.
Cox is not worried that some parts of the 2020 fair might not measure up.
“I am not concerned about that,” she said.
Her history in the fair business over nearly 20 years “has been more of a seasonal model,” she said.
Under that model, a fair is not strapped with great overhead, “which can become real difficult obviously when you don’t have years with good margins,” Cox said.
Freeing up personnel, working with “independent department areas and budgeting more conservatively gives us the freedom to absorb a tough weather challenge rather than just hoping that we’re going to get great weather,” she said.
Needing great weather every year is “just not sustainable,” Cox said. “You cannot bank on sunshine every single year. That’s just not responsible budgeting.”
She became the fair’s executive director in January 2018.
The State Fair budget was passed Nov. 22. At that meeting, it was reported that the 2019 fair lost a projected $1.4 million.
State Fair Board Chairman Chris Kircher called the 2020 budget “fiscally conservative” and one that “will get State Fair finances back on track.”
At that meeting, Patrick Kopke, chief of finance and administration for the fair, told the board that unless the fair makes some changes in operation, it was only one year away from bankruptcy. He then submitted his letter of resignation.
Former Grand Island Mayor Jeremy Jensen, who is the board’s finance director, said “the 2019 budget, from start to finish, was flawed beyond belief.”
Speaking at the Nov. 22 meeting, Jensen expressed his frustrations over the negative finger-pointing that has taken place about the fair and its personnel over the last year. He told the board the performance of this year’s fair was the responsibility of the board and the fair’s staff, not of one individual.
Following an executive session, the board voted 8-1 to accept Cox’s budget recommendations.
After that meeting, Kircher and Jensen met with reporters and disputed Kopke’s assertion about the State Fair going bankrupt within a year.
Jensen said the board made some “tough decisions” concerning the budget.
“But as far as the future goes, everybody should check back with us in a year and see if we have been able to uphold our end of the bargain,” he said.
Kircher, when asked about Kopke’s financial assessment about the State Fair, said, “We absolutely disagree with his assessment. He is certainly able to have his own opinion, but I think he is wrong. The fact that we passed a budget today that we feel good about — and that our executive director feels good about — and will accomplish the very thing against what he feels might happen. It might have been nice if he had stuck around and seen the budget and had a feel for what we had in mind before making remarks like he did.”
Kircher said he and the board expect Cox to live up to the budget she proposed.
“She feels comfortable with it,” he said. “We believe it is a good start. We have also communicated our expectations that while we need to be very diligent about cutting these costs, we also expect the same quality that this state is used to. She feels comfortable for taking these challenges on, and we look forward to working with her.”
Also on Nov. 22, Jensen said Kopke’s statement was not only inaccurate, but also premature.
“At the end of the day, if we just remained status quo and continued doing things the way we have done them, financial distress would have been on the horizon,” he said. “But I think it is really important to understand that we challenged the board and the board accepted the challenge. The executive director accepted the challenge of saying that we have to make some tough decisions. We were able to do that. The idea that the State Fair is going to be bankrupted in a year is not accurate.”
Cox’s budget not only laid out ways to reduce overhead and expenses, but also provided ways to improve the organizational flow of her staff and be accountable to the board on the way money is being spent for fair preparation.
Kircher said there is a real commitment of the fair board to participate in the budgeting process of the event.
“They understand the importance of doing this,” he said.