A $2.8 million "surprise" in the build-out to accommodate crowds and campers for a national rodeo event at the Lancaster Event Center next year will require an up to $4 million "leap of faith" grant of lodging tax dollars, center officials said Thursday.
Event Center Managing Director Amy Dickerson told the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners the $3 million grant the board approved in 2016 to host the National High School Finals Rodeo beginning in 2020 won't cover the improvements needed for the weeklong event.
That's even after efforts to drive down construction expenses, she said.
Failing to meet the rodeo's needs could jeopardize the event center's deal to host the 50,000-visitor event, with competitors from more than 40 states, Mexico, Canada and Australia, multiple times over the next decade, Dickerson said.
The planned improvements, largely funded through lodging tax revenue managed by the Lancaster County Visitors Promotion Committee, could also attract other national events to the event center. Ultimately, the County Board approves grants using lodging tax funds.
"Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith," said Kendra Ronnau, board vice president of the Lancaster County Ag Society.
But several commissioners expressed concerns about the newest request, suggesting the lodging tax funds proposed as an investment for the campground improvements won't be replenished.
"This isn't putting heads in beds," said Commissioner Sean Flowerday.
County commissioners approved the initial grant in 2016 on the idea that only 500 campsites would need to be built at the event center, which already had 250.
Event center officials believed Lincoln's more than 5,000 hotel rooms could accommodate rodeo attendees who often camp when the event is hosted in its mainstays of Gillette and Rock Springs, Wyoming, Dickerson said.
Both are cities of fewer than 35,000 people.
Dickerson said event center officials later learned the rodeo association's bid required a minimum of 1,000 campsites.
The event center retooled its plans to save money and did some of the work themselves, Dickerson said.
But engineering plans of the expansion, finished last summer, showed floodplain requirements would change how the campsites must be built, most notably how power is provided, she said. Costs associated with those changes approach $1.8 million.
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Commissioner Deb Schorr said she's concerned there's been a pattern of the event center asking for more grant funding before existing grants are completely paid.
The event center has received nearly $6 million since 2007 from the Visitors Promotion Committee.
"Growth is not a straight path, and you learn things as you go," Dickerson told the five commissioners.
Annually, the county takes in about $1.9 million in lodging taxes that can be used for event-related capital improvements, said Kerry Eagan, the county board's chief administrative officer.
With the event center set to host the rodeo in 2020, 2021, 2026 and 2027, Ronnau and Dickerson believe the four national events could generate more than $64 million for the community based on an extrapolation of the economic impact the National Junior High Finals Rodeo had in Des Moines, Iowa.
Though the core rodeo competitors will likely camp on-site, many of the spectators and vendors will stay in hotels, with the event center projecting 5,000 hotel room nights for each of the four rodeos in Lincoln, Dickerson said.
Dickerson told the board she believed the center wouldn't be prepared for the rodeo in 15 months without additional grant funding.
Improvements include a 3,500-seat covered grandstand to its outdoor arena.
The national rodeo had bounced back and forth between Gillette and Rock Springs for nearly a decade before Lincoln entered the mix. But beginning in 2028, the list of host communities will expand further, with plans to host the rodeo in back-to-back years at new American Royal facilities planned for near Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas.
Earlier this year, Dickerson said national organizers have their eyes on sites with available indoor arena space as a guarantee that the rodeo could go on regardless of the weather.
The Lancaster Event Center has long had an indoor arena with permanent seating as part of its expansion plans, but the focus now is funding to complete work spelled out in the contract.
Ronnau said the board doesn't expect the national rodeo to turn a profit for the event center and she acknowledged the challenge this rodeo event poses.
But they want to keep the event center busy, and its leaders are invested in launching this, she said.
"We're out there, and going to help seed and do whatever we can," she said.
Led by Commissioner Jennifer Brinkman, the board decided to convene a special meeting with the Visitors Promotion Committee to consider the center's grant application. Typically the committee only meets to consider grant requests twice a year.
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