The lights flicked off and the crowd roared. World-famous rodeo announcer Boyd Polhamus’ voice ricocheted off the walls. Spotlights arced their way onto a young rodeo competitor. He sang a no-frills rendition of the national anthem.
Goosebumps crawled up Kynzie McNeill’s arms.
“It’s the best of the best competing right here in Casper,” said McNeill, a sophomore barrel racer and goat tying competitor at Texas Tech University.
This was McNeill’s first College National Finals Rodeo, but she’s been coming to Wyoming since high school. Rock Springs and Gillette alternate every two years as hosts of the National High School Finals Rodeo.
Rodeo is a tourism draw throughout the Cowboy State. Nearly every county holds professional rodeos, from Cheyenne Frontier Days to the Cody Stampede. The events draw out-of-towners into local hotels, restaurants and downtown shops.
The infrastructure required to attract rodeos also positions towns to hold various entertainment year-round.
In Casper, local officials have installed new seats, scoreboards, heating and air conditioning and a roof to keep the Casper Events Center in prime shape for events like the College Finals.
“It’s a very cool arena,” said freshman Jacey Hupp, a goat tying competitor from South Dakota State University. “It holds a lot of people. It gets loud, and you can feed off that energy.”
Throughout the College Finals, horses keep competitors busy. Much time is spent brushing flanks, scraping hooves, mucking out trailers and trotting laps to keep muscles loose. It’s all in preparation for rodeo events – affairs that last mere seconds. The number after the decimal point often separates champions from also-rans.
In between all the work, however, there’s still time to enjoy the town.
Downtown Casper stalwart Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters bustled during the June 12-18 College Finals. Women ran their fingers along fabrics and men rifled through racks of blue jeans in the Western clothing store. Near the entrance, the eponymous Louis Taubert methodically swayed a straw hat over hissing steam, turning the brim this way and that to soften the weave. Taubert motioned a young boy perched on a nearby stool to stand in front of him. Lips pursed in concentration behind a thick, graying beard, he placed the hat on the boy’s blonde head. The boy smiled and ran to a three-way mirror to admire the new look.
Outside, a sea of cowboy hats bobbed along Second Street, downtown Casper’s main thoroughfare.
“It always feels great to come back to Wyoming. There are great sponsor stores here that support CNFR. It feels like a cowboy town when CNFR is here,” said Paige Wiseman, a freshman breakaway roper and barrel racer at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. “It’s a homey feeling being around people that respect your lifestyle and the sport you choose. It’s fun spending time with champions outside the arena and in.”
A couple blocks away, several generations of Stepps churned butter, mixed chocolate and pecked away at keyboards inside Donells Candies.
Marketing Manager Cathy Stepp plopped truffles one piece at a time into a big, blue mixing bowl full of chocolate. She used a wooden spatula and a two-pronged fork to coat the truffles, shape them and gently place them on a covered cookie sheet.
Her hands hardly slowed while she talked about the rodeo’s impact since moving from Rapid City to Casper in 1999.
“Over the last eight to 10 years, we have definitely seen a change in the traffic pattern. Far more people are coming into downtown to shop during CNFR,” Stepp said. “It really helps drive all the businesses downtown, because the dollars spent by tourists work their way around our community. The money spent during that week stays here.”
The week-long rodeo also entertains the locals. Stepp tries to go to the daytime events, when it’s slower and quieter, so she can cheer on Wyoming athletes.
Attendance at the rodeo was on pace with 2015, according to Brook Kreder, chief executive officer of the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Local officials were happy with the numbers, considering the economic downturn.
“With the energy sector down, this is an opportunity for us to offset some of that with leisure and tourism,” Kreder said.
Previous Visitors Bureau reports have placed the economic impact of the College Finals Rodeo at $8.1 million annually.
Kreder recently sat down with Casper City Manager V.H. McDonald to understand how tourism can help drive economic development, including business recruitment. There are no easy answers yet, but local officials are excited about the prospects.
Everything’s bigger in Wyoming
The tie between community amenities and a strong business environment is clear to Phil Christopherson, chief executive officer of Energy Capital Economic Development, Campbell County’s local economic development organization.
“A good quality of life is important to bringing new business into Gillette,” Christopherson said. “The fact that the Cam-Plex is here, doing what they do best, improves our economy.”
The Gillette Cam-Plex Multi-Event Facilities is a sprawling campus conceived in the 1970s. The site hosts rodeos, weddings, conventions, theater, concerts and more.
It is among just a half dozen places nationwide capable of handling the National High School Finals Rodeo, billed as the largest such event in the world. More than 1,500 contestants compete annually.
“Texas doesn’t have any,” said Mark Smith, Cam-Plex marketing manager, offering a small smile. “Wyoming has two: us and Rock Springs.”
The week-long High School Finals pumps $10 million into the local economy. The community responds with full-throated support. An army of 600 to 800 volunteers assist during the event. Restaurants and retail outlets stay open as late as 1 a.m. to accommodate the crowds.
A vendor show associated with the High School Finals showcases more than 200 booths for national manufacturers and local merchants alike.
The traffic spills into neighboring Wright, too.
Come and stay awhile
Wright will host calf roping and steer wrestling events in conjunction with this year’s High School Finals, set for July 17-23.
“We are trying to capitalize on folks who are in the area anyway and involved in the sport,” said Max Davis, manager of the Southern Campbell County Agricultural Complex. “Gillette’s events feed ours, and vice versa. We work to make sure our dates complement each other.”
Davis, a big man with a closely-cropped goatee, takes pride in the Ag Complex. He touted the complex with pride, sifting the soft dirt through his fingers and spreading his arms to indicate the extra wide design of the interior. The indoor venue sits on 40 acres that include an outdoor arena and space for locals to board their horses.
The $3.7 million complex is just a year old and has already hosted 34 events to the tune of $200,000 in economic impact, said Brandi Harlow, economic development director for the town of Wright.
“About 4,000 people have come to town,” Harlow added. “You take those numbers and bring them into a community of just 2,500 people, and those visitors eat at restaurants, fuel up trucks, fill up hotel rooms – it’s very important to bring those dollars in to help the community.”
Wright businesses rely on energy sector workers during the week, but many of those folks leave town for the weekend.
“We don’t have a lot of tourism traffic here in Wright, so Friday and Saturday nights lag,” said Alan Waner, general manager of the Wright Hotel and Open Range Steakhouse. “Whatever happens in the community over the weekend is a help to us.”
Waner traveled the country on rodeo circuits in the ‘80s. Aside from a handful of large metropolitan areas, the Ag Complex is among the best rodeo venues he’s encountered.
“It’s well put together, well maintained, and I believe it to be a really good asset for the community,” Waner said. “A lot of families now have the opportunity and a place to ride, especially during bad weather, and we’re bringing some different events to Wright we wouldn’t have had before.”
The Ag Complex will have an even larger impact on the community by next summer with the help of a $190,000 grant from the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency.
The money will help Wright build 20 overnight boarding pens, a requirement to attract visitors and contestants for multi-day events.
“The longer we can keep them in town, the more money they’re going to spend here,” Harlow said.
Living up to the name
Attracting bigger overnight events is also the idea behind an expansion underway at the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs.
The Business Council provided a $2.5 million grant to help Sweetwater County construct 800 horse stalls. The new infrastructure will allow local officials to bid on and attract events catering to as many as 4,000 people. The stalls will also ensure the Events Complex can continue bidding on, and winning, the High School Finals contract.
“We have events booked out through the year 2035,” said Larry Lloyd, Events Complex executive director. “That’s $173 million coming to Sweetwater County and the state of Wyoming.”
Rock Springs is in constant contact with officials in Wright and Gillette to ensure rodeo events alternate between the communities, Lloyd added.
Rodeo families travel by truck and camper, he explained. Those vehicles drive across the state, carrying passengers who spend money statewide. Often, families turn national rodeo events into the annual family vacation, visiting attractions like Yellowstone National Park and Flaming Gorge Recreation Area.
The more of those events the state can recruit the better, said Lloyd. That’s why he’s planning to expand Wyoming’s claim as the Cowboy State by bidding for the national Lil’ Britches and National Junior High Finals Rodeo events, too.
“Between those events and when Casper has the CNFR, and us or Gillette holds the high school rodeo, it truly makes us the Cowboy State,” Lloyd said. “This is not just about Rock Springs, or Gillette, or any individual town, it’s about the state of Wyoming.”
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