Retired Fonner Park CEO
Horse Racing was the catalyst to accomplish this mission at the beginning of time and continues to be the catalyst today.
The timeline of Fonner Park begins in the 1950’s, back to a time when the farmland property set on the outskirts of Grand Island was owned and operated by Gus and Emma Fonner.
A group of civic-minded businessmen met in 1953 to organize the Hall County Livestock Improvement Association for the purpose of locating a permanent home for the Hall County Fair, complete with buildings which consisted of barns, a grandstand and also a race track. Gus Fonner was a charter member of the Association. He and Emma sold their land that became known as Fonner Park to the Association for a very generous low cost. Fonner Park remains the permanent home for the Hall County Fair to this day.
Fonner Park is owned and operated by the Hall County Livestock Improvement Association d/b/a Fonner Park. Initially, shares of stock were sold to Stockholders at $50.00. Bonds were issued to raise $220,000 which would be used to build barns, a grandstand facility and race track. Years later, the IRS changed the regulation and consequently a new Membership system was established. Today there are 503 members who pay a $50.00 Lifetime Membership Fee. No dividends are paid out.
All money goes into the facility or is put back into the community. Members are invited to the annual meeting that is held on the last Wednesday of July each year. There are 36 Board Members and 6 Executive Board Members that serve on the board for six years. Board members are voted on at the annual meeting.
In 2006, the Fonner Park Exposition and Events Center, Inc. d/b/a the Heartland Events Center opened its doors at Fonner Park, providing a 6,000 seat arena with an attached 8,000 sq. ft. conference center.
In 2010, the Nebraska State Fair relocated to Grand Island from Lincoln. Over a half a million square feet of exhibition, livestock and arena facilities were built for hosting the State Fair. The Fonner Park Campus becomes State Fair Park for 60 days each year so that the Nebraska State Fair can set up, host the eleven-day fair that runs through Labor Day and clean up after the fair each year. The other ten months of the year, the facilities are operated as Fonner Park by Fonner Park.
•August “Gus” Fonner was born March 1, 1873, and raised in Grand Island, Nebraska. He was exposed to horses as a child and as a young man rode in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Traveling show. Gus was a farmer, stockman, and collector of Native American art. He was a great friend of the Lakota Sioux Indians and for many years was the director of the rodeo on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
•Gus and Emma Fonner were approached by a group of civic-minded businessmen looking for a permanent home for the Hall County Fair.
•Gus and Emma Fonner sold to the Hall County Livestock Improvement Association, at a low cost, the land that became Fonner Park and the permanent home of the Hall County Fair.
•A short time later, this same group of businessmen put a plan into action to build a racetrack and grandstand facility.
|1954||•First year of live thoroughbred horse racing with thirteen days of racing held.|
|1956||•(January) Al Swihart was appointed General Manager of Fonner Park.|
|1958 (March)||•Completion of a new concourse, main entrance, canopy and enclosing the grandstand with glass.|
|1959||•Gus Fonner passed away.|
|1962||•Mezzanine addition to grandstand.|
|1962-1968||•Construction of seven additional barns.|
•100 ft. addition to the south end of the grandstand.
•Fonner extended the grandstand, added a new paddock, jockey’s quarters, first aid station, general offices and inside rail.
|1966||•New Paddock, jockey quarters and general offices were added.|
•Fonner Park Clubhouse added (first in the State)
•(September) Opening of the new Clubhouse addition
|1975||•An electronic tote board was added.|
|1976||•Completed Clubhouse addition and new third level Skyline addition.|
•(February) Fonner Park celebrated its 25th anniversary.
•(November) “Sunday” racing sought. Senator Ralph Kelly and the ministers of Grand Island led a petition drive against it. Trinity United Methodist Church was against Sunday racing. Al Swihart promised to print page in the Saturday racing form of all Grand Island churches, their times of worship services and addresses.
•Fonner Park had eight Sundays of live racing.
•Mr. and Mrs. B.L. Thompson donated $100,000 toward the building of Thompson 4-H Arena.
•Fonner traded Tuesday racing for Sunday and added 1,543 new box and grandstand seats.
•(April) The jockeys walk out on operations because of the “unfit” track surface.
•(May) Grand Island voters reject the continuation of Sunday racing by a vote of 4,183 against to 3,079 for.
•(October) Hall County Livestock Improvement Association filed a law suit claiming the City’s right to vote on Sunday racing issue was unconstitutional.
•Lancaster Co. District Court Judge William Blue ruled in favor of the state law allowing cities to prohibit Sunday racing by election. Fonner Park had no immediate plans to appeal.
•No Sunday racing in 1981. The schedule was as follows: Starting Thursday, February 26-racing for 3 days for the first 2 weeks; 4 days the 3rd week; 5 days a week-Tuesday to Saturday through April 25.
•(February) Customers were introduced to a new form of wagering. They are now able to place a wager and collect with the same teller.
•The Legislature passed LB 136, which changed the state’s Sunday racing law. A countywide vote can now be held to determine the future of Sunday racing.
•(April) Fonner reaches its first $1,000,000 mutuel handle day.
|1982||•(July) Fonner Park tentatively plans to build onto the Clubhouse, which would provide seating for 370 more spectators.|
•Upper level of Clubhouse added.
•(February) Al Swihart, General Manager, passed away.
•(March) Hugh Miner, Jr., was appointed General Manager of Fonner Park.
•(November) Construction began on the 4-H Building and Cafe.
•(January) New 4-H Building and Cafe was completed.
•(February) Concourse mural was completed.
•1/2 mile training track built and construction of 180 Stall Barn “R”.
•(December) Fonner Park introduces trifecta wagering.
•New racing office complex constructed.
•(July) Fonner Park planted 250 trees, installed a two-railed white fence around the property border, and completed the new office building.
•More talk of Sunday racing-may try again.
•(August) Over 400 people gathered at Fonner Park to pick up petitions.
1,891 signatures are needed by September 1 to put on election ballot.
•7,000 signatures were collected to put the issue of Sunday racing at Fonner Park on the November ballot.
•(October) The Grand Island Ministerial Alliance came out opposed to Sunday racing.
|1987||•A new four-lane driveway was added to Fonner Park via South Locust street.|
•Turf Club addition.
•(February) Nationwide simulcasting is now available at Fonner Park. Fonner Park hosts 362 days of simulcasting each year.
•(March) Local businesses do not like simulcasting. The out-of-town visitor count is down.
•(May) Fonner added a new Fontana Safety Rail with “gooseneck” uprights, resurfaced the track and banked the turns.
•Added the Fonner Park “message center” on South Locust.
|1989||•(March) Turf Club opened.|
|1991||•New General Offices and Executive Suite completed.|
|1992||•(December) Fonner was designated to operate the Hall County Keno lottery.|
•Fonner Keno and Simulcasting Center addition.
•Fonner Keno was introduced at Fonner Park. Today there are eight satellite sites in addition to Fonner Park. Satellite sites include Balz, Whitey’s, Bandits, Chicken Coop, Platt Duetsche, The Palace, McKinney’s Pub and Sluggers.
•(July) Thompson 4-H Arena was re-built after the 1992 storm damage.
|1994||•(February) Barn “K” tragically burned down. Thirty-five thoroughbred race horses and one pony died in the fire.|
•(March) Horse owners filed $610,000 worth of fire claims.
•(July) Fonner Park changed from a “stockholder” organization to a “membership” organization.
Members pay a $50 Lifetime Membership Fee
No dividends are paid out
Members invited to annual meeting
36 Board Members-6 Executive Board Members. Members to serve a six year term on Board.
•(October) Fonner explored expanding gaming options.
|2002||•Emma (Fonner) Corey passed away.|
|2004||•(December 10) Construction began on the Heartland Events Center.|
|2006||•(August) Heartland Events Center opened with the first concerts for the Hall County Fair.|
•(July) Broke ground for construction of over a half million square feet of buildings in preparation for the relocation of the Nebraska State Fair from Lincoln. Buildings to include a Sheep Barn, Cattle Barn, Swine Barn, Livestock Arena, Exhibition Building and 4-H/FFA Exhibition Building.
•Funding for these facilities was provided as follows: State Legislature appropriated funding, City of Grand Island-$5 million from 1.5% restaurant tax that was implemented, Hall County-$1 million from Keno proceeds, Private/Corporate/Foundations – $1 million, Fonner Park donated the land.
•To make way for the Nebraska State Fair, the Fonner Park soccer fields were relocated to land in north Grand Island near the Nebraska Veterans Home.
•(August) Nebraska State Fair opened in Grand Island.
The NSF takes possession of the Fonner Park grounds for 60 days each year and Fonner Park becomes Nebraska State Fair Park. The fair is held for eleven days starting in late August and ending on Labor Day each year.
Fonner Park owns the property and is responsible for the upkeep of all buildings.
|2012||•(June) A partnership between Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair and Five Points Bank was formed to rename the Livestock Arena to the Five Points Bank Arena.|
|2013||•(May) Construction began on the Nebraska Building/Nebraska State Fair offices.|
|2013||•(July) A partnership between Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair and Pinnacle Bank was formed to rename the Expo Center to the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center.|
•Nebraska Building opened.
(May) State Fair Offices – Level 2
(August) Raising Nebraska – Level 1
|2015||•(March) Four community partners including Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair, the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Island/Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau have joined together to create Grand Island Livestock Complex Authority (GILCA), an organization to market and promote the year-round use of the State Fair livestock buildings at Fonner Park.|
•(June) Hugh Miner, Jr., retires after 45 year of service.
(July) Bruce Swihart becomes the new CEO of Fonner Park.
•Fonner Park’s live race meet was defined by a herpes virus outbreak on April 17.
•The Thompson Arenas were upgraded with some assistance from the Nebraska State Fair Foundation and renamed Thompson Foods Outdoor Arena.
•(October) Replaced existing Fonner Park sign on Stolley Park Road with updated sign for Fonner Park, Heartland Events Center and Nebraska State Fair.
•Notable new events to Fonner Park include Rodeo Grand Island and SkillsUSA.
•The existing Director’s Room was renovated and renamed the Triple Crown Room.
•New signs were placed in the infield recognizing yearly corporate sponsors.
•The Aksarben Stock Show, Quiz Bowl and Purple Ribbon Auction held their first annual events at Fonner Park.
•Issues escalated with the HBPA and NE Thoroughbred Breeders, legal counsel retained.
•(February) A partnership between Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair and Aurora Cooperative was formed to rename the Swine Arena to the Aurora Cooperative Pavilion.
•(February) A partnership between Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair and Tom Dinsdale Automotive was formed to rename the Cattle Barn to the Tom Dinsdale Automotive Cattle Barn.
•Major sanitary sewer line repairs were completed at the direction of the City of GI.
•An equine warm-up arena was constructed west of the Aurora Coop Pavilion.
•April 19 marked the untimely death of Todd Otto, long time employee of Fonner Park.
•An area in the Skyline was upgraded with bar service, lighting, pub tables and chairs and was renamed the Skyline Pub.
•For the first time, Fonner lost one weekend of racing in March due to inclement weather.
•On April 7, a new record attendance of 11,000+ was hit. Ostrich and camel races were held for the first time.
•Bruce Swihart, CEO of Fonner Park and the Heartland Events Center, retires on July 31 after 43 years of service.
•Chris Kotulak was named CEO of Fonner Park and the Heartland Events Center on August 1.
•(March 16) Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele requested that the 2020 Fonner Park racing season be suspended until further notice due to the global health crisis caused by the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak proposed a “no-spectator” presentation of racing as a compromise and the mayor agreed.
•(March 23) A two-week trial period of no-spectator Thoroughbred horse racing began. Fonner Park shifted from weekend racing to a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday format to create separation from the more popular racetracks. Post time was set at 3:30 p.m. CT
•On the first day of the trial period, all sources parimutuel handle surpasses $1.3 million dollars and breaks the previous all-time record of $1.2 million dollars in handle, originally established in 1983. In the immediate days to follow, racetracks, ADWs and betting services from across the nation and world begin to take the Fonner Park horseracing simulcast signal.
•(April 7) A mandatory payout in the popular Dinsdale Late Pick 5 Jackpot wager. The betting pool closed with over $4.1 million and the all-sources handle was $7,260,430.
•(April 22) Fonner Park and the Hall County Livestock Improvement Association announced the approval of the Nebraska State Racing Commission for an additional twelve days of racing in May to conduct a Second Season of racing.
•(May 27) Fonner Park concluded an extended and unprecedented season of racing after adapting a standard 11-week racing season into a 15-week season which totaled 40 days of live racing.
•(November 3) Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approve casino gaming by passing three separate ballot initiatives to allow games of chance in the state. The legislation limits games of chance to occur only at licensed racetrack enclosures.