A tale of 2 rodeos: Rocky Mountain House rodeo cancelled, Ponoka Stampede still going ahead

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In Rocky Mountain House, Alta., the grandstand installed at the rodeo grounds in 2019 has never been used and the seats won’t be filled this summer either. 

For the second time, the pandemic has forced the Rocky Agricultural and Stampede Association to cancel its small rodeo, which would typically kick off central Alberta’s rodeo season in early June. 

“With the COVID restrictions this year, it was just not practical for us to go. The rodeo board needs full occupancy in order for it to be financially feasible,” said Janette Strom, president of the Rocky Agricultural and Stampede Association.  

But the much larger Ponoka Stampede will still host its rodeo the first weekend of July, provided provincial health regulations allow for physically-distanced outdoor activities.

 With the stampede being much bigger and later than the one in Rocky Mountain House, time is on Ponoka’s side. 

“We could last until probably late May, early June before we have to make a decision one way or the other,” said Bruce Harbin, president of the Ponoka Stampede. “But our current state is that we’re going to go forward. And we’re just like a kid waiting for Christmas. All the presents are under the tree and we can’t wait to get to them.” 

In both central Alberta communities, rodeo weekend is an annual economic gift to the community. The Ponoka Stampede attracts 35,000 tourists each summer — a huge boost for a town of 7,000.

Harbin said that for every dollar spent on a ticket to the Ponoka Stampede, tens are spent in the community, at restaurants, gas stations, hotels and grocery stores. 

He hopes to bring that influx of cash to Ponoka this summer, but in Rocky Mountain House, Mayor Tammy Burke knows her similarly-sized community isn’t going to get those tourist dollars, at least not from rodeo. 

“The rodeo and the chuckwagons, they bring in a tremendous amount of traffic to our community for at least a week, week-and-a-half,” she explains. “It’s a heartbreaking summer again.” 

Burke hopes that Albertans will still come to Rocky Mountain House to go hiking, camping, biking or kayaking this summer.

Strom, who leads Rocky’s rodeo preparation, said the emotional impact is being felt as much as the economic impact, as the rodeo is a tradition so many look forward to. 

“Especially two years in a row, two years in a row is kind of tough,” she says, adding that if the Ponoka Stampede is open to spectators this year, she’ll be in attendance.

Under the current public health measures a Ponoka Stampede as we know it would not be possible, as outdoor gatherings are capped at 10 people.

Premier Jason Kenney has stated that Albertans could be in for the best summer ever if the province can stop the spread of COVID-19 and continue to ramp up vaccinations. Other summer events like the Calgary Stampede, are also hopeful they will be able to go ahead. 

In Ponoka, Harbin is still optimistic and flexible, hoping to launch a distanced stampede when or if the Alberta government relaxes restrictions. 

“We’re shooting at a moving target,” he says. “Everything changes weekly, daily. We’re putting some plans in place for best-case scenarios and seeing what might fit together with the government and their regulations.”

“We’re born ready. And we’ll have a rodeo if they say yes. We’ll have the best one ever.”

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