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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Back to the Rodeo future: Cowtown readies a new era for signature event

Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo

Jan. 15-Feb. 6


Now approaching his 25th year serving diners in the Cultural District, Chef Michael Thomson is always happy to see the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo come to town.

For his Michaels Cuisine Restaurant & Ancho Chili Bar on West Seventh Street, he spruced up his menu, upgraded his special annual “Stock Show Menu” and is stocking more swordfish steaks, Gulf shrimp and quail, along with the prime rib, top sirloin and other traditional favorites of his loyal Stock Show clientele as well as newcomers.

“January into the first week of February is the biggest month of the year for us,” Thomson said.

At the McDonald’s location at Montgomery Street and Camp Bowie Boulevard, General Manager Alex Garcia feels the impact as well. “We like to say we raise horses on the weekends,” he said, not referring directly to horses, but the numerous equestrians plus the various herds of other hungry customers spurred to the Stock Show, accelerating sales, especially on weekends.

“We have lines out the door by 6-7 a.m. many days,” Garcia said.

After 30 years of operating Montgomery Street Cafe, owner Claudette Finley is hoping to round up a larger flock of Stock Show & Rodeo goers to dine on her home-style breakfasts, brunches and lunches. More food-service competition on the show grounds and in the area, time-consuming walks from the show’s major activities for always rushing visitors and exhibitors, parking challenges and some traffic congestion and safety worries have kept too many diners away, she said.

The event, marking its 120th year, began with a few ranchers and cattle traders in 1896, who gathered to show breeding stock on the banks of Marine Creek in what is now North Fort Worth.

“It’s part of who we are,” Mayor Betsy Price said recently. “But sometimes we take it for granted.”

But this now-modern nonprofit business – with an annual 23-day exposition, 36 rodeo performances, a social media manager, full-time graphics designer and an annual budget exceeding $20 million – takes little for granted and doesn’t rest on its laurels or ignore challenges.

Soon Finley and other local business operators should feel more positive impact from the show, with major upgrades and expansion now and in the future expected to boost the already record-setting attendance, overall and at the Stock Show Rodeo.

The latest focus is on the just-completed $15.4 million project at the Will Rogers Memorial Center that included renovating 1940s-vintage Cattle Barn 2, installing a new Milking Parlor, replacing old electrical utilities/wiring as needed in all livestock barns and building the 300-foot-long, vault-roofed Tower Promenade between Cattle Barns 1 and 2.

“We are committed to having the best livestock and equestrian show facilities in North America, if not the world,” said Ed Bass, board chairman of the officially named Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, in last fall’s Stock Show & Rodeo newsletter.

In Cattle Barn 2’s reincarnation, improvements feature handicap accessibility, visitor-friendly walkways, the old small auction arena transformed into a modern cattle-wash, new restrooms, revamped electrical utilities, more modern entrances and redesigned stalls with flexibility to meet the needs of both cattle and horses.

Exhibitors of horses and cattle generate the highest and growing demand for stalling space, and not just during the Stock Show, officials said.

“The key is flexibility, now and ongoing,” said Matt Brockman, publicity manager. He and city officials cite critical need to compete with aggressively marketed and improving rodeo and livestock venues in at least six other cities: Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Denver and two in Tennessee.

Brockman said he expects future upgrades to the other livestock barns to be similar to that of Cattle Barn 2. No timetable has been announced.

The Milking Parlor, a longtime Stock Show feature, promises to offer spacious comfort while visitors “learn how milk gets from the cow to their table.”

The wide, overarching Tower Promenade facilitates visitors’ and participants’ access from the Trail Drive Parking Lot and south Entry Gate 44 to the heart of the Will Rogers complex.

“This is such a unique project. The promenade is a signature statement connecting the existing Will Rogers Memorial Center campus to the new parking and future arena to the south. This type of barn doesn’t exist in any other facility in the world,” said David Stanford, principal designer with Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanford, the architect of the project.

“We are excited once again to have had the opportunity to be part of adding these additions and upgrades to what we knew already to be the premier livestock and equine facility in the country; that is the Will Rogers Memorial Center Complex.” said Russ Garrison, president for Sedalco Construction Services, general contractor for the project.

Adhering to a long tradition, the Stock Show shared with the city the project’s $15.4 million cost. The nonprofit show corporation paid $2 million upfront to cover the barns’ electrical upgrading and committed to pay about $340,000 a year for 20 years to cover about half the remaining costs, city and show officials said.

It’s the latest in a string of major improvements to the show grounds, highlighted by the equestrian and exhibit buildings with a new auction arena added in the 1980s, the Kit and Charlie Moncrief Building for the 1996 show and the equestrian multipurpose building for the 2013 show. To date, total Stock Show-generated funds, grants and related private donations have reached the $60 million range for Will Rogers complex expansion, renovation and related improvements, the Stock Show reports.

But bigger changes lie ahead. From the south end of the airy Tower Promenade, if plans proceed as expected, future visitors will be able to see the new tower planned for the new $450 million (estimated) Fort Worth multipurpose arena that is expected to debut by or before 2021.

Now, with groundwork already under way for the arena’s 2,200-slot parking garage, the target for construction start-up is about a year from now, officials said.

The site will be on what is now largely a parking area south of Harley Street between Montgomery Street and Trail Drive. Unofficially, officials said, it’s tentatively targeted to be ready for the 2020 Stock Show.

Mike Groomer, president and chief executive of Event Facilities Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit created in 2000 as a Stock Show & Rodeo support organization, said the 2020 Stock Show Rodeo “will be held in the new facility.”

Under the master agreement, and as approved by voters, arena costs are to be shared, with the city/public’s obligation capped at $225 million, and the remaining $225 million, plus any cost overruns, to be raised by private-sector foundations, organizations and individuals, city and support officials said.

Under the agreement, the city-owned arena, plaza and parking garage are to be managed by a nonprofit corporation; its excess revenues are to support multipurpose arena operations, maintenance and its future capital improvement needs. For its one-month annual use, Groomer said, the Stock Show “will be a tenant and pay rent as all other users will.”

The bottom-line goals are to boost Stock Show Rodeo attendance and overall attendance at an anticipated cornucopia of events new to Fort Worth at the Will Rogers complex.

Current plans for the new arena are to provide the Stock Show Rodeo an arena floor equal in size to the Coliseum floor, where the rodeo is currently held, plus seating capacity of 9,300-9,750, compared with the Coliseum’s 5,700.

Kirk Slaughter, public events director for the city, said structural flexibility will allow floor/wall/seating/stage adjustments for circuses and music concerts; basketball, hockey and other sports games; more equestrian and livestock shows; college/high school graduation ceremonies; and overall, a wider variety of events now challenged in finding convenient or desirable sites in Fort Worth.

“It will be a performance arena,” Slaughter said, citing seating configurations that can range up to about 14,000 or adjust to serve smaller crowds.

Additional amenities will include a large outdoor plaza for festivals and more events plus luxury suites, multimedia electronics/video screens, clubs, concessions and concourses.

Overall, the situation leaves the question of what’s to happen to the grand old Coliseum, with its authentic rodeo ambience and intimate identification with Cowtown since 1944. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and other celebrities performed there. NBC-TV broadcast the first complete televised rodeo there. Rodeo sell-outs remain common there.

“I don’t see the equestrian shows pulling out of Will Rogers Coliseum and going to the new arena,” Slaughter said, provided that the Coliseum is restored and renovated. He also cited higher rental rates for the new arena and equestrian preferences for the Coliseum’s size, adjacent barns, other amenities and historical attraction.

“We’ve got to preserve our history,” Slaughter said. He cited discussions underway on upgrading and restoring the Coliseum, including its original 1930s art deco features, making it wheelchair-accessible and upgrading/restoring its concessions and other features.

He said current demand for the Coliseum and the Will Rogers complex’s other venues is so high that the overall facility is “one of the busiest in the country.”

During the annual one-month lease by the Stock Show, Brockman and other officials said, the Stock Show will have no trouble keeping the Coliseum busy with daily events and new offerings.

The new arena/plaza center and Will Rogers will draw more and often larger events, accommodating even more visitors spending even more money at hotels, restaurants and other retail businesses in Fort Worth, Tarrant County and adjacent areas, Slaughter said.

Last year, according to a study, nearly 1.25 million Stock Show & Rodeo visitors (several thousand for multiple days) spent an average of $50 a day, for a total of about $62.4 million, contributing $1.77 million in Fort Worth sales and hotel taxes and $5.54 million in Texas sales taxes. And, according to 2015 report by Grotta Marketing Research of Fort Worth, as well as related surveys and analysis, all commissioned by the Stock Show, three out of four visitors came from outside of Fort Worth.

The economic impact associated with the 2015 Stock Show & Rodeo, the report stated, exceeded $88.6 million in annual spending by visitors, participants and the nonprofit corporation itself.

The Grotta report was based on six years of surveys, analysis/study and public data. Surveys were conducted by Grotta, EventCorp Services of Redmond, Wash., its I-COUNT Survey Service and the Stock Show. Gerald L. Grotta, a marketing researcher and analyst, is credited with methodology, survey work, analyses and the report. He’s a retired journalism professor from Texas Christian University.

“We’re a nonprofit with the missions to entertain the public and offer education opportunities. … It’s always a balancing act, between the old and the new,” Brockman said. Among other things, that means delivering new fun and food options, while retaining popular offerings.

Example: The show’s popular Coors Light Roadhouse tent venue, already a show success, is returning with music performances for 19 of the Stock Show’s 23-day run with genres ranging from country classic fiddling to modern country/pop, Motown, Chicano/Tejano/Mexican, rock and Red Dirt.

On the new side: Witness this year’s Stock Show debut of Starbucks, with two locations, operated by the Reata restaurant team.

Many Will Rogers-area business operators relish their sales and traffic boosts from Stock Show & Rodeo visitors, its nearly 1,000 hired temporary workers and some 950 unpaid volunteers.

At Montgomery Street Antiques Mall, manager Judy Phillips said all Will Rogers events affect her business positively, with “a conservative estimate of 5 percent” additional sales during the Stock Show. Out-of-town shoppers often like Will Rogers Memorial Center antiques, she said. “We serve refreshments on Stock Show weekends for free.”

Reata’s Stock Show debut with Reata at the Rodeo came in 2002; its success prompted a second venture, Reata at the Backstage Club in 2008; both have been expanded, said Reata president Mike Micallef. Then in 2010 came Reata’s La Espuela for fast Mexican food.

Micallef said the Stock Show & Rodeo sales gains range from 5 to 10 percent, based on Reata Fort Worth’s already high annual volumes downtown.

“I’ve been waiting for the Stock Show,” said McDonald’s General Manager Garcia at the nearby store, citing routine sales gains of 15-20 percent over average days and sometimes 25-30 percent on some special days, like the Martin Luther King holiday Monday.

Michaels chef Thomson said: “I’m anticipating a 25 percent sales gain this year,” with past overall averages up about 20 percent during the show and rodeo.

“We look forward to this, after the Christmas rush,” said Albert Trujillo, president of Fort Worth Billiards Supply on Montgomery Street. He estimated 15-20 percent sales increases over the store’s monthly average for game room furnishings and supplies.

For Finley’s Montgomery Street Cafe, the show improvements should lasso a larger daily flock of new and loyal diners; the new arena/plaza and its garage will shorten the walk to her cafe by nearly three blocks.

“We’re ready for them to come on down,” Finley said.

Worth Wren Jr. has covered the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo for 23 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Contact him at wrensly4@att.net.

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