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With four years of high school rodeo locked down, Lancaster Event Center expansion hopes intensify

January 30, 2019

Before a horse even charges from a bucking chute, Lincoln has earned a hotly contested spot in the rotation of hosts for one of the country’s largest rodeos.

Two years ago, the Lancaster Event Center and the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau landed the National High School Finals Rodeo for 2020 and 2021, with fingers crossed that organizers would follow through on plans to bring the seven-day event — with 1,700 cowboys and cowgirls — back to Lincoln in 2026 and 2027.

The sanctioning National High School Rodeo Association made it official last weekend, a vote of confidence in the $3 million in facility improvements underway as the event center at 84th Street and Havelock Avenue prepares for its first go-round next year.

The national rodeo had bounced back and forth between Gillette, Wyoming, and Rock Springs, Wyoming, 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.

Organizers at the national level have said they prefer to rotate the event among a small group of sites, but the addition of Kansas City to the competitive bidding process is likely to raise the stakes in the next round.

Amy Dickerson, the event center’s managing director, said national organizers have their eyes on 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 identifying funding is now as important as ever.

Dickerson said a community advisory committee will begin work later this year to gather information on proposed expansion projects and provide feedback to the governing boards at the county level.

Meanwhile, the planning for July 2020 continues to accelerate. Already, organizers are asking for volunteers to sign up at the event center’s website.

Each annual rodeo is expected to draw 50,000 visitors and competitors from more than 40 states, Canada, Australia and Mexico, competing in 13 events, from bull riding to barrel racing, pole bending to breakaway roping. The rodeo recently added two shooting competitions.

Each rodeo is expected to generate an estimated economic impact of $16 million in Lincoln alone, drawing competitors — and their families — from around the country who likely wouldn’t otherwise visit.

Many are expected to stay at new campsites, with water and electrical hookups, under construction at the event center as part of improvements largely funded through lodging tax funds managed by the Lancaster County Visitors Promotion Committee.

The event center also will add a 3,500-seat covered grandstand to its outdoor arena, the other promise that sealed the deal with the rodeo group.

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