Task force continues to look at options for fairgrounds in Sioux Falls

Minnehaha County commissioners on Friday heard suggestions from the former director of the Nebraska State Fair and a company leader who works with venues around the country.

Aerial view of the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls.
Contributed / Sioux Empire Fair

SIOUX FALLS — A task force is continuing to look into options for the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls as they near developing final recommendations to the Minnehaha County Commissioners.

In a meeting on Friday, March 10, commissioners heard from a management company leader who works with venues across the country and from the former director of the Nebraska State Fair to gather more ideas on what can be done to improve the aging fairgrounds that are home to the Sioux Empire Fair and add to year round operations.

Tom McDonnel, a vice president for the Oak View Group that provides food and beverage services to the Denny Sanford Premier Center and the Sanford Pentagon and 400 other venues across the country, detailed options if the task force decides to suggest further development of the buildings on the site or to assist the current management.

McDonnel said among the services Oak View could help with marketing, booking events, sponsorships, planning renovations and running food and beverage operations

County Commission Administrative Officer Carol Muller said by having McDonnel speak to the task force that they weren’t planning on privatizing overall management of the fairgrounds. She said it was just one of the many options the task force has been looking at in a series of meetings that started in February and will wrap up later this month with recommendations to the county board in April.


Task force member Bob Thimjon wondered how long it would take the management company to come up with proposals for helping the operations. McDonnel said possibly about three months before a contract could be finalized.

McDonnel also said there was an “a la carte” option where they could help with certain aspects of the fairgrounds.

He said they could indeed help with planning any facility renovations.

With all of the company’s experience and staff, he said “at least you’re not going to be starting from scratch.”

“We can help with a game plan, strategy and resources,”he said.

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Bill Ogg, who was most recently the executive director of the Nebraska State Fair and is now retired, helped with the relocation of the fairgrounds from Lincoln to Grand Island in 2010.

His suggestions were that Minnehaha County should seek partners in the operation, look more at revenue sources instead of simply the expenditures and not to take the value of the fair and its facilities for granted.

“It’s more valuable to the community than just a social and cultural reunion,” Ogg said of the fair.


The annual event needs to be respected for its contributions to youth and adults, its economic impact and educational value, Ogg said.

Charlie Smith, a master planner from Tennessee who is voluntarily helping the task force, assisted in lining up the two men to address the task force. He said Ogg was a “fix it man” who helped right the ship for the struggling Nebraska fair.

Ogg also addressed the issue of how the fair has transformed the operation in Grand Island with a “world class” livestock venue that he said is attracting numerous national shows.

He said livestock associations not only look at facilities but also location and costs.

In Grand Island, he said they were able to find sponsors that helped reduce the costs to run the national shows which was another big selling point.

As for finding partners for the fairgrounds operations, he said in his years of running the Montana State Fair in Great Falls the best years were when they partnered with the city or a private management company. He said when the county simply ran the operation at various points over the years they “struggled.”

The task force at its next meeting on March 20 will look specifically at livestock event possibilities.

With meetings on March 23 and 31, Thimjon suggested that a face-to-face discussion with all 12 task force members should be held to hammer out their final recommendations and ideas.


Muller agreed and said instead of having some join Zoom that they should try to all get together if possible.

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