CHEYENNE – Cheyenne Frontier Days, the famous 10-day outdoor rodeo event, has been held every year since 1897. But as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, that streak could be in jeopardy.
The "Daddy of 'em All" is still slated to begin July 17, yet that could change. CFD officials will be monitoring the decisions of other rodeos scheduled for May and June to determine their best course of action. In the meantime, event organizers have paused ticket advertising for the entire month of April.
"We know this is a big problem," CFD President and CEO Tom Hirsig said Wednesday. "People are looking forward to July, but I think there are some important steps we have to take right now to encourage people to make sure it happens ... the only thing we can really control is helping to control the spread of that disease."
Hirsig said state and federal officials will likely have the final say on whether to cancel events like the Reno Rodeo, which is held in late June.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also overshadowed discussions between rodeo officials and the city of Cheyenne on how to fund law enforcement needed for this year's event, should it occur.
Last year, after historically not charging the rodeo for law enforcement, the city asked CFD officials to help with the costs of the police needed to reach an officer-to-attendant threshold on par with industry standards. The two parties agreed to split the $100,000 cost in 2019.
The funding for this year's extra police, however, has been much disputed. During initial negotiations, Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak threatened to not issue a liquor license to CFD if rodeo officials weren’t willing to pay their share. To remedy the issue, the Legislature approved Senate File 134, which guarantees a malt beverage permit through state statute, rather than depending on the chief’s approval.
After winning approval from the Legislature, the bill became law last week – but without the signature of Gov. Mark Gordon. The governor, in a letter explaining his decision to not sign the bill, expressed his frustration with the local conflict at the heart of the bill.
"In that particular instance, where a reasonable person might argue that perhaps local authorities acted somewhat excessively, one would hope practical minds could have found a better solution,” Gordon said in his letter. "That was not to be, however.”
Gordon said he hopes his non-signature "will provide a teachable moment for us and that this approach to solving local disputes will not become a norm or necessity.”
Despite the governor’s rebuke, both CFD and city officials saw some good in the final version of the bill, which was amended to require an agreement on an alcohol control plan before the permit can be issued.
Kozak said Wednesday that he liked the bill placing ultimate liability on the rodeo to address public safety, rather than on the city. As with other private events, CFD officials will now have to formally request CPD officers to patrol the event.
"Over the past several years (before 2019), CFD was not meeting certain industry standards,” the chief said. "However, what the city had done for so many years was assume responsibility over that by supplying all resources dealing with safety and security at the event, even though we didn't have the proper resources or the ability to fund them.”
City and CFD officials are still figuring out exactly how they might split the funding for the necessary law enforcement. A few City Council members began discussions with CFD attorney Pat Crank last month, with the sides weighing the possibility of a five-year contract to provide more long-term clarity for their finances.
But the effects of COVID-19 have rapidly disrupted both sides' finances. The city may have to cut millions from its budget for this year, which could factor into how much funding can go to CFD.
“I've already had to freeze positions in public safety, so I don't know how that's going to change negotiations now,” Kozak said.
The discussions had been put on hold amid the rapid changes brought on by the coronavirus, though Hirsig was confident the two sides would reach an agreement.
"We certainly want to support the city however we can," Hirsig said. "We just need to know moving forward what that looks like."
Hirsig has stayed in contact with Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr, who also was optimistic about discussions between the two entities moving forward. But the mayor admitted the potential effects of COVID-19 have worried both CFD and city officials.
"Revenue projections are going to be very well reduced for the foreseeable future," Orr said. "What does that mean when it impacts things like public safety?"
While sales and use tax revenues plummet with businesses temporarily closed, the rodeo event also brings in considerable revenue for the city through sales tax – more than $500,000 annually.
Hirsig said the rodeo's plans should become clearer in the next two to three weeks. In the meantime, he's praying the show can go on.
"It's a scary thought for this community if this event doesn't take place," Hirsig said. "123 straight years, through wars, depressions, everything else, we've never missed a year."