A 690-mile drive west of Lincoln, the community of Rock Springs, Wyoming, just concluded its latest go-round with an event billed as the world's largest rodeo.
Nearly 1,600 competitors in the National High School Finals Rodeo and their families from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Australia descended on the town of 23,000 in southwest Wyoming for a weeklong event that local officials there claim swells the town's Sweetwater Events Complex into the eighth largest city in the state.
Horse trailers pepper the roadside leading into the sprawling rodeo grounds, said Gregory Hasman, a local newspaper reporter.
"There are not a lot of places that can hold an event like this," said Hasman, who just concluded covering his third National Finals Rodeo for the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner.
In less than a year, Lincoln will join the circuit, and as participants in Wyoming were competing in a range of events from barrel racing and pole bending to bareback and bull riding, crews at the Lancaster Event Center continued work to bury electrical and water lines to transform an empty field into a campground with more than 1,200 sites.
Following a three-month back-and-forth during which questions arose over whether the rodeo would ever make it to Lincoln, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday is expected to approve a $3.6 million agreement to fund rodeo-related improvements at the event center at 84th Street and Havelock Avenue.
County and event center officials agreed to cut out $450,000 from an earlier $4.05 million proposal. The money, from county lodging tax revenues, will be paid out between 2022 and 2027.
This will be the second grant of county tax revenues from hotel stays given to the event center for the rodeo, which Lincoln is set to host in 2020 and 2021 and again in 2026 and 2027.
The contract between the county and the event center stipulates that it would not be eligible for any additional lodging tax funds until 2027.
That had been a point of contention, since the event center is still receiving funds from a $3 million grant awarded in 2016.
The center will be a good steward of this county investment and look to use the new features for more than just the rodeos, said Amy Dickerson, event center managing director.
The new amenities, which include a covered outdoor grandstand, should help draw other events to Lincoln, she said. And the new features, such as added horse stalls, will boost the events already on the event center's annual calendar.
Not only do event center staff project a $64 million infusion into the local economy in the eight-year span that the event center will host the rodeo four times, but Dickerson said this investment marks a giant leap forward in national prominence.
A national show drawing up to 3,000 recreational vehicles has talked with event center officials about hosting a convention there in 2022, Dickerson said.
Under its agreement with the county, the center would keep all of its profits from the rodeo — following earlier discussion that certain profit amounts could reduce the need for grant dollars.
Event center staff say that will help them build and maintain momentum from each event.
"We're very motivated to get the most out of each rodeo and get some other events booked out there," Dickerson said.
This year's National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs wrapped up Saturday with the crowning of a new queen and awards presentations.
From July 14 to July 20, there were 12 rodeo performances — scheduled morning and night — along with a trade show, volleyball tournament and contestant dances daily from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
More than 500 volunteers helped manage the 1,300 campers and 1,940 horses on the Sweetwater Events Complex grounds. Nearly 800 golf carts were approved to run back and forth over the course of the week.
As Lincoln prepares to manage next year's rodeo July 19-25, the event center has added an operations director with experience running the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyoming, Dickerson said.
A team of nine officials from the event center and the Lancaster County Ag Society ventured to Rock Springs to watch how staff there managed everything, Dickerson added.
They took logistical notes on the check-in process for the competitors, their horses and families camping on the rodeo grounds.
They hopped on golf carts to hand out water to people.
They also manned a booth to market next year's rodeo, part of a $211,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Tourism to draw in as many out-of-state competitors and spectators as possible, she said.
A 5-year-old boy with siblings competing in Rock Springs marched up to that booth and asked staff what "there is to do in Lincoln," because he's been threatened to stay home with grandma.
A staff member told him about all the attractions in the Lincoln area, Dickerson said, and "we think he’ll get to come now."
At a lunch for Nebraska's competitors in this year's rodeo in Rock Springs, the Event Center staff fielded some of their toughest questions yet about their preparedness, Dickerson said.
They're proud the high school rodeo world will be turning its attention to Lincoln next year, but those home-state competitors wanted assurance it will be ready to put on a great show, she said.
Several in the group told Dickerson and company they'd volunteer to help next summer.
Kendra Ronnau, a board member with the Lancaster County Ag Society that runs the event center, said she's just excited to finally turn the attention to getting this first rodeo out of the chute.
"Lincoln's never done anything like this, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's very successful," Ronnau said.
"I think we'll finally get a feel for what it does for our city and our county and our state."