Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo wants to ‘come home’

       The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Association and El Paso County government had a tiff a few years ago. The result was the annual rodeo moving from its traditional Penrose Stadium venue to the World Arena in the Cheyenne area of town from 2002 to 2004.
       Now the association wants to come back to Penrose… but not just to use the stadium. The non-profit organization wants to take over the entire developed portion of the Penrose Equestrian Center, which also includes the Indoor Arena, boarding stables, practice arenas and parking areas on about 160 acres off Rio Grande Street between 8th and 21st streets.
       “It would be like coming home,” said Mark Watson, president of the Pikes Peak or Bust board of directors. He was referring to the event's pre-World War II origins under the leadership of Broadmoor multi-millionaire Spencer Penrose, who built the stadium.
       Added Rob Alexander, the board's vice-president, the deal would be a “win-win for everyone, especially the public.”
       The “win” for the county would be getting out from under the cost of running the center at a loss. For the association, the reward would not only be preserving the historic stadium for its rodeo but upgrading the facility to better compete for major events and thus ensure year-round profitability.
       Under the plan, which was presented to the Board of El Paso County Commissioners in late October, the county would sell roughly 60 Equestrian Center acres north of Bear Creek - the developed areas plus the parking lot north of Rio Grande - while the 90 or so undeveloped acres south of the creek would become part of Bear Creek Park.
       Based on informal discussions, the change of ownership would involve no exchange of money, other than a nominal fee of perhaps $1 from the association to the county. However, the sale would come with a Rodeo Association pledge to spend about $2 million to upgrade the center.
       In addition to the commissioners, Colorado Springs City Council also would need to approve the deal, as a condition of the city's having given the Equestrian Center to the county several years ago.
       There is urgency to the Rodeo Association's proposal. Because of deadlines related to planning next August's Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, Watson said a decision is being sought from county commissioners before Thanksgiving. Contract details are being worked out with the county attorney, he said.
       “We're trying to get it there in 2005,” Watson said, adding that in any case, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Association has an option to come back to the World Arena another year.
       Long-time County Administrator Terry Harris said he is optimistic about the plan. “It looks like it's going to go,” he said. “It will be a good thing for Bear Creek Park and for the rodeo people.”
       The county has been giving the Equestrian Center a roughly $150,000-a-year subsidy, but Harris said that's less than half what the county actually has been contributing, when staff time and services are included.
       Even with that much of an investment, “The facility is falling apart,” Alexander said. “The county does not have the money to fix it up.”
       In addition to structural deficiencies, the stadium must be renovated to add restrooms and modern concessions, he and Watson noted.
       Harris said that the problem for the county is that the Equestrian Center is perennially a low budget priority. If the association proposal falls through, in fact, the county's annual subsidy is due to end after this year. Continuing that way would leave the stadium is “so delapidated you couldn't operate it,” Harris said. “And that would be a shame because it's a gem within the city and has tremendous impact in terms of jobs and sales tax earnings.”
       Despite the monetary handicap, the center's management has had promoting success. The 5,700-seat stadium and the newer, 500-seat Indoor Arena typically host more than 30 events a year, including numerous rodeo-type competitions and (for the first time this year) the Scottish Highland Games.
       Harris, as well as the association board members, praised the current Equestrian Center staff, led by Manager Bill Miller, for doing, as Harris put it, “a good job without help.”
       The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo started in 1937, but some years were missed during World War II, which is why this year's event was called the 64th annual. The post-World War II atmosphere also inspired a decision to give rodeo profits to military charities - a process that has carried forward to this day, Alexander explained.
       Until 2002, the event had always been held in Penrose Stadium - at the Broadmoor until 1972 and then at the Equestrian Center when the stadium was disassembled and reassembled at that location.
       The decision to move the event to the World Arena in 2002 came in the wake of a county lawsuit saying the Rodeo Association's lease for the facility two weeks a year didn't pay the county enough. The association disagreed, arguing that it was spending money of its own to make repairs, in addition to hauling in extra porta-johns to compensate for the lack of stadium restrooms. In the end, the association won.
       “I've buried that hatchet,” Alexander told the Westside Pioneer, but added that the disagreement helps explain why the association wants to own the facility before it brings the rodeo back there.
       The Equestrian Center property has an unusual history, having been a gold mill and later a city dump. “Everytime there's a good rain, pieces of the old Antler's Hotel come up in the middle of the arena,” Alexander commented.
       Because of those land-pollution issues, the property is never likely to be developable. However, from the standpoint of history and community spirit, the site means plenty to the all-volunteer Rodeo Association, both Watson and Alexander said.
       “It's part of our great Western heritage,” said Alexander, a Colorado Springs native who recalls trying to sneak into the rodeo as a kid. “We don't want to let Penrose fall into the ground.”
       There's also something about an outdoor rodeo that can never be captured indoors, Watson said. “Colorado in the summer is a wonderful place to be, exception for the rainstorms in the middle of the day, which has been an occasional problem at the Equestrian Center, but we can work around that,” he said.
       Both men are aware it won't be easy to make the Equestrian Center profitable. Competition for regional events is stiff these days, especially from high-quality venues such as in Larimer and Douglas counties. Although expressing confidence that a private enterprise approach will ultimately prove successful, Alexander said he anticipates at least three years of red ink. That's why the association, having raised $2 million to upgrade the facility, is endeavoring to raise $2 million more, he said.

Westside Pioneer Article