|FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (October 21, 2021) - Nebraska tourism industry members honored the hard work and dedication of their peers at the Celebrate Nebraska Awards Banquet on Thursday night at the Liederkranz in Grand Island. The event closed out the annual Nebraska Tourism Conference organized by the Nebraska Tourism Commission and Visit Grand Island.
“Congratulations to all of our 2021 award winners,” said John Ricks, Nebraska Tourism Commission executive director. “Each year we have the honor of looking through nominations from events and attractions that work hard to make Nebraska a great place to visit and we’re excited to reward that hard work.”
Chris Kotulak, CEO of Fonner Park and experienced horseracing television host, was master of ceremonies for the event and announced the following 2021 Nebraska Tourism Industry Award winners.
The 2021 Henry Fonda Award, the state’s highest tourism award representing leadership, vision and dedication to the tourism industry, went to The Vala Family. Over the last 37 years, a trip to the iconic Vala’s Pumpkin Patch in Gretna has become a tradition for many. It started out as an idea Tim Vala had, but as the business grew, every member of the Vala family contributed. Co-founder Jan Vala, took on the business roles of marketer, merchandise manager, personnel manager and accountant. Tim and Jan’s three daughters, Kirsten, Kyla and Kelsey grew up helping on the farm and now, all three of them are co-owners of the Pumpkin Patch. Today, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch has grown into a 400-acre operation with nearly 55 acres of pumpkins planted every year. Just last month, the Vala Family lost their beloved matriarch, Jan Vala, a woman who was kind, hardworking and known to always remember each of the 1000+ employees names. Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is an example of a great agritourism business in Nebraska and the family works hard to grow and improve it year after year.
The Friend of Tourism Award went to Steve White. Steve White is a part of the NTV News Team, the Bureau Chief of the Grand Island Newsroom and Co-Host of NTV’s Grow, a weekly farm and ranch program. He’s also the go-to reporter for all things related to the Nebraska State Fair, affectionately referred to as “Mr. State Fair.” Steve is an advocate for everything Nebraska, from promoting agriculture and the family farm to reporting on events that draw people from near and far to the region.
The Outstanding Agritourism and/or Ecotourism Entity Award went to Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue. Founded in 1913, Fontenelle Forest is one of Nebraska’s oldest conservation organizations and one of the largest private nature centers in the nation. Fontenelle Forest encompasses 24 miles of trails and over 2,100 acres of forest, prairie, wetlands and Native American historical sites along the Missouri River. While the pandemic greatly impacted the attraction with in-person programs and event cancellations, they were able to keep the riverview boardwalk and hiking trails open, resulting in an increase in membership and admissions in 2020 over 2019. Fontenelle Forest has been able to maintain this growth into 2021, continuing to be a draw for tourists from all over.
The Outstanding Event Award for communities with populations up to 9,999 was given to the Seward Nebraska Fourth of July Celebration. Since 1868, the community of Seward, Nebraska has honored and celebrated the anniversary of the United State’s founding with a Fourth of July celebration. In 2021, Seward, “Nebraska’s Fourth of July City,” celebrated its 152nd event, after a virtual celebration the previous year due to COVID-19. The Fourth of July Celebration has drawn over 50,000 people to the daylong event, resulting in a large economic impact for the community.
The Outstanding Event Award for communities with populations over 10,000 went to the 2021 National High School Finals Rodeo in Lincoln. Held in July of this year, the event was a huge success for the city of Lincoln, Lancaster County and the state of Nebraska, drawing in record attendance and having a large impact on the local economy. There was a much higher attendance in Lincoln than in any other previous location, with 1,623 contestants present and attendees from 43 states, 5 Canadian provinces and Mexico. Additionally, event organizers took extra consideration to showcase everything Lincoln and the state have to offer including a “Welcome to Lincoln Day” kick-off event located in the Haymarket Railyard and a featured Nebraska Night.
The Outstanding Marketing Campaign Award was awarded to Lancaster Event Center Fairgrounds and KidGlov for the 2021 National High School Finals Rodeo. KidGlov and the Lancaster Event Center Fairgrounds worked together successfully to conduct a multi-year national, regional, and local marketing campaign. The campaign’s marketing objectives revolved around promoting the event in a way that encouraged qualifiers to stay longer and bring their family and friends, encouraged rodeo fans from nearby states to attend and solidified Lincoln, Nebraska as an outstanding location in the minds of 30,000 NHSRA members and fans. Overall, the campaign was a success, with over 8 million combined impressions and resulting in record event attendance and a huge impact on the economy.
The Outstanding Tourism Attraction Award went to the Edgerton Explorit Center. Edgerton Explorit Center is a hands-on science center in Aurora. Many additions were recently made to the main floor’s Explorit Zone, including a rock climbing physics area, giant periodic table battleship game, a laser light and strobe area and more. Additionally, the lower level of the center is being converted into a 1,400 square foot addition with over 30 new exhibits and an ADA accessible second level. Since 2012, the center has increased visitor numbers from 24,000 to over 200,000 and has made tremendous strides in the last 25 years to make it a premier stop in the state.
The Passport Champions Choice Award, chosen by Nebraska Passport participants who made it to all 70 stops in 2021, was awarded to Smith Falls State Park. This year is the 100th anniversary of Nebraska’s State Parks. Smith Falls State Park is home to Nebraska’s highest waterfall, Smith Falls, and is a popular destination for campers, canoers, kayakers and tubers. Passport participant Megan H. from Neligh, Nebraska said, “What a gem to find! Easy access and a short scenic walk brought us to the base of a waterfall right out of my dreams. It wasn’t long before we were all barefoot and splashing delightfully in the cold clear water.”
Additionally, the Nebraska Travel Association gave out their Crystal Compass Award to Sports Nebraska for their leadership role in attracting key sporting events to the state while leveraging the sports market to generate economic impact and media exposure for Nebraska.