Becky Ferguson and her husband used to take their three children to the Nebraska State Fair every year to eat deep-fried candy bars, ride the Ferris wheel and look at the 4-H exhibits.
But the Fergusons, like many other families in Nebraska, have stopped going. They say the fairgrounds were no longer being kept clean, and tickets -- which rose to $10 per person in 1999 -- had become too expensive for an entire family. Tickets were dropped back to $7 per person last year.
The Nebraska State Fair -- a nearly 136-year-old tradition in the heart of America's agricultural heartland -- is in trouble.
It has been losing money and visitors, and its future may hinge on a Nov. 2 vote on whether to use $2 million a year in state lottery proceeds to repair buildings and make other improvements to the fairgrounds.
"It would be a very, very sad thing in the midwestern United States if we would lose a state fair," said Iowa fair manager Gary Slater.
Across the Farm Belt, the agricultural economy has weakened, and competition for consumers' entertainment dollars is tougher than ever. But the state fair in neighboring Iowa is thriving, as are similar summertime events in other states. Nebraska may have simply been slow to react to the pressures.
A committee appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns reported earlier this year that the fair will be forced into bankruptcy unless it gets more money to add "glitz and pizazz" and spruce up the state-owned fairgrounds, where the oldest building was constructed in 1918, the newest in the 1970s.
The report outlined a litany of problems at the fair, including poorly placed entrances and exhibit space, a lack of beer sales outside of designated areas, noisy grandstand events that interfere with other attractions, and poor marketing.
About $2 million is spent on the fair each year, but little of that comes directly from the state. The fair is largely supposed to pay for itself through admissions, parking, and vendor and carnival fees.
The fair ended 2003 about $650,000 in the red, and this year's fair, which runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 6, will be about $450,000 short, said interim fair manager Joe McDermott. Attendance has steadily dropped from 366,638 in 1999 to 238,007 last year.
State fairs, which date to the 1800s, have long focused on livestock exhibits and competitions, canned goods, crafts, and other agricultural attractions.
But as the nation became more urbanized, so did the fairs. Nebraska's fair and many others boast rock concerts and high-tech exhibitions.
Nationwide, fair attendance is mostly steady or increasing, and fairs in states such as Iowa, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma have invested tens of millions of dollars in improvements, said Jim Tucker, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
Iowa, for example, formed a foundation years ago to raise money to help subsidize its fair. That effort resulted in $54 million -- two-thirds of which came from the state -- being collected to make improvements to the buildings at the fairgrounds.
Nebraska's fair, though, has not worked as aggressively to line up corporate sponsors and other private sources of money.
"I don't think they were trying to hide anything, I just think they were trying to deal with things internally," said Kristine Gale, organizer of the campaign to pass the amendment that would steer lottery money to the fair.
Things hit rock bottom in Nebraska last year when the last state funding, totaling $293,000 for prizes, was taken away because of a budget crunch. This year, the legislature put back $153,000.
Ferguson, who lives in Lincoln and is an investment officer, said she would consider returning to the fair if it improved.
"I think coming to the state fair is a big treat for some of the farming families we have in the state," she said. "Maybe if some of these issues were addressed, people would come back."