POCATELLO — Leaders with Bannock County and the Idaho High School Rodeo Association are ironing out details of a contract to host the state's prestigious rodeo finals locally for up to three more years.
The association's current contract with the Bannock County Event Center is set to expire after the forthcoming finals, scheduled for June 25-28.
The finals have a substantial economic impact on their host community, bringing in more than 400 contestants from nine districts of Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. Between 2,000 and 3,000 spectators fill the stands on any given night.
County and association officials had a falling out prior to last summer's finals over COVID-19 protocols, culminating with the event moving for that summer to the Bingham County Fairgrounds in Blackfoot for the first few days and the Madison County Fairgrounds in Rexburg for the final few days. Specifically, Bannock County balked at the plan the association submitted detailing how they would protect the crowd and rodeo participants from the coronavirus.
In the heat of the moment, association leaders vowed they would never return to Bannock County, where the event has been hosted for more than 25 years.
Kelly Duffin, who represents the host Portneuf Rodeo Committee, believes the Bannock County facility offers the best amenities in the state for the finals. Duffin said the association chose to honor their contract and return to Bannock County for this year's finals during a meeting last June. Shortly thereafter, the association decided reaching a contract to host the event in Pocatello for two more years, with a third year option, was also in their best interests, Duffin said. The association's board will meet on Feb. 6 to discuss specific details of a new contract.
Duffin believes the relationship between the county and the association has been repaired and both sides have realized they can still work together effectively.
"Maybe it felt like everything was just rushed," Duffin said. "I'm going to blame it on the COVID hysteria and not knowing what we were dealing with. ... I think emotions have calmed and the COVID hysteria has calmed."
Bannock County Commissioner Jeff Hough said the finals have become part of the county's heritage and reclaiming the event has been a priority for the commission.
"We hope to have this relationship for years to come," Hough said. "We have the best facility for the event they're trying to do."
Hough doesn't envision COVID-19 policies will cause the same divide regarding this summer's finals. He said the county intends to plan its slate of large events for this summer without special accommodations for COVID-19, understanding that adjustments can be made if circumstances at the time warrant them.
"We want to proceed as normal as possible right now," Hough said.
Guy Patterson, business manager and event director at the Bannock County Event Center and Portneuf Health Trust Wellness Complex, also sees no reason why the county can't safely hold large events amid the coronavirus pandemic. Patterson emphasized that the Idaho Junior High Rodeo Division submitted an adequate COVID-19 plan and successfully hosted rodeo finals last June in Pocatello, despite the pandemic.
Patterson said events at the county facility are set to start during the first week of February, when Rock Creek Ranch Roping is scheduled, and he aims to deliver "business as usual" to the community.
"We need to provide a healthy way for the rest of the community to be able to go and exercise some freedom," Patterson said.
Significant upgrades have made to the county facility that should benefit the rodeo finals. Patterson said RV sites at the county campground have now been equipped with 30-amp and 50-amp power service, as well as other improvements. The sound system at the indoor arena has been improved. Horse stalls have also been added to the grounds: Two new buildings, each containing 30 stalls, have been built, and half of an existing building has been converted into 24 additional stalls. Patterson said the fairgrounds offers equine events nearly 500 horse stalls, factoring in temporary stalls that can be erected in the open barn.
Patterson said an Eastern Idaho rodeo official, Brent Robertson, is slated to become the next adult president of the National High School Rodeo Association, and he believes that connection could help the county eventually land the national competition, as well. Patterson said the county may look to make improvements to make the facility more conducive to the needs of the national finals during the coming years.
Duffin said Bingham County offered a good venue for the 2020 finals, and he was impressed by the Blackfoot area business community, which stepped up in big way to sponsor last summer's rodeo. But he noted the return of the rodeo to Pocatello is a win for Bannock County businesses. The owners of Cal Ranch, for example, tell Duffin rodeo week is their busiest time of the year, with sales exceeding even Black Friday week.
"Blackfoot was awesome. The Fair Board was awesome to work with. They really helped us when things were difficult," Duffin said. "...The willingness of the state (rodeo) board to come back to Pocatello under the circumstances proves they want to work with the county. They had other options. I was told (the vote to return to Pocatello) wasn't even close."