The executive director of the National High School Rodeo Association stood in an expansive field on the east side of the Lancaster Event Center on Tuesday, turning a little dirt with a shiny shovel in what will become 1,050 new campsites.

The ceremonial dirt-turning — with a number of local dignitaries, including Gov. Pete Ricketts — marks the beginning of construction on the latest upgrades to the event center at 4100 N. 84th St.

Those upgrades — including the new campsites, with water and electrical hookups — are part of the improvements the event center promised to complete before the National High School Finals Rodeo  comes to town in 2020 and 2021.

The campsites will add to the existing 200 campsites, which have electrical but no water hookup.

The event center also will add a 3,500-seat covered grandstand to its outdoor arena, the other promise that sealed the deal for the rodeo.

The event is expected to draw 1,700 contestants from 43 states, five Canadian provinces, Australia and Mexico.

James Higginbotham, the rodeo group’s executive director, said it chose Lincoln for a combination of reasons, including the event center staff, available horse stalling, the soon-to-be added camping facilities, the rodeo facilities and the community.

In recent years, the junior high and high school finals have been held in Des Moines, Iowa, as well as Texas, Wyoming and New Mexico. One of the draws to Lincoln: its central location in the United States.

“It’s not a metropolis, but it’s plenty big enough to find all we need and still have the amenities our participants are looking for,” he said.

The $2.8 million in event center improvements will be paid for with a grant from the Lancaster County Visitors Promotion Committee. The grant comes from lodging taxes, not property tax revenue, said Lancaster County Commissioner Todd Wiltgen.

“This is exactly what these funds are designed for,” he said. “To expand the capacity so we can have more people visit.”

Amy Dickerson, managing director of the Lancaster Event Center, said much of the land that will be turned into campsites — and is now used as overflow parking — is in the floodplain, so the campsites are a good use of the land.

She said she hopes the improvements will draw other events. She’s already gotten an inquiry about an RV road rally.

The city will begin widening Havelock Avenue, which runs along the north side of the event center, next year, Dickerson said.

Wiltgen said the event center complements the other event facilities in Lincoln, and is important for the city and especially northeast Lincoln.

“It’s kind of like the gateway to the city,” he said.

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