Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum gift shop manager Martie Stone holds a 2020 Cheyenne Frontier Days buckle Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Cheyenne. The buckle is the only stocked 2020 CFD item available for purchase, and now that the rodeo is canceled, it will remain the only merchandise available this year. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Just a few years ago, a global pandemic – or perhaps a more foreseeable disaster – could have spelled the end of Cheyenne Frontier Days.

But about three years back, the CFD Board of Directors, along with CEO Tom Hirsig, decided to institute a more stringent saving policy for the annual event.

“In our minds, we were thinking, ‘What would happen if a tornado came and knocked our grandstands down a week before Frontier Days and we couldn’t have our show? Could we absorb that?’” Hirsig said in an interview Thursday.

Following the cancellation of CFD and five other large Wyoming rodeos Wednesday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those hypotheticals have suddenly become reality. The organization that puts on CFD has already spent $2 million on this year’s event, and estimates an additional $5 to $6 million hit due to the cancellation, which was the first in the rodeo’s 124-year history.

Because they began reserving money for such a loss a few years ago, event organizers expect the world’s largest outdoor rodeo to survive, but it will be left in a precarious position financially.

“It’s going to virtually wipe out everything we’ve saved to get to next year,” Hirsig said.

“I can tell you if this would have happened seven years ago, we would be out of business. We’d be borrowing money to put on the next year’s show.”

In total, it costs the organization roughly $15 million a year to hold the 10-day event, which includes rodeo competitions, parades and evening concerts. Additionally, Hirsig noted the organization has year-round expenses, such as staff salaries and upkeep of its new headquarters building in Frontier Park.

While concerned for their own event’s viability, CFD officials also hoped to help those business and hotel owners who depend on the annual event. An economic impact study from 2019 shows the rodeo generates around $27 million annually in local economic activity, along with roughly $600,000 in local tax revenue.

Jimmy Dean Siler, CFD’s general chairman, said the event’s mission “has always been to bring an economic gain to the city of Cheyenne, Laramie County and the state of Wyoming.” Despite the pandemic momentarily disrupting that mission, Siler was optimistic the rodeo would rebound.

“Whether it be our volunteers, whether it be our staff, whether it be the citizens of Cheyenne, the citizens in the state of Wyoming, they have a passion for Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Siler said. “When you challenge these groups, they’re second-to-none.”

While CFD 2020 itself has been canceled, a few other CFD-led events will aim to keep the community connected this summer. The organization still plans to have its fireworks show on the Fourth of July, though it will be designed for residents to watch from their backyards, rather than at Frontier Park.

Hirsig said he will be keeping an eye on social distancing guidelines, in case some events could eventually be held at the CFD facility in a safe manner. In the meantime, CFD officials are left with few options but to wait and see how the situation evolves.

“I think we have to plan like we’re gonna be back to somewhat normalcy by (2021), because that’s really the only way we’re gonna make it,” Hirsig said. “Hopefully, we get a vaccine and a cure, and we can all go back to socializing. Until that day, I don’t think we can all feel comfortable that we’re going to have normalcy in our lives, or anything close to it.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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