You know that saying, “You can’t please everyone all of the time.” Maybe not, but the Greeley Independence Stampede has come close to doing just that for the past 79 years.
The Stampede, an offshoot of Greeley’s Spud Rodeo, has grown into a mega event that features Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association rodeos, concerts by some of the nation’s top country and classic-rock artists, barbecues and a carnival. As if that’s not enough, there are a variety of religious services that draw 8,000 on Sunday mornings, a demolition derby that sells out each year, mutton bustin for the kids, an art show and a two-and-a-half-hour-long parade. Oh yeah, and dances. All of these events have become synonymous with celebrating the Fourth of July.
The Greeley Independence Stampede, this year’s Bravo! Regional Spirit Award winner, now draws close to a half million visitors – a 700 percent increase in attendance since the late 1980s. People from neighboring states and the Rocky Mountains, along with much of Northern Colorado, now converge on Island Grove Park in Greeley for one or more days of family entertainment.
“This is one of the neatest events we do in Northern Colorado for a community of people,´ said Steve Holdren, a contract lobbyist who is in his second year as chairman of the Stampede Committee, a volunteer group that oversees the event. “It provides so much for the people of Northern Colorado.”
The key to success for the Stampede? Ask anyone and the answer will be the same: Volunteers. It takes more than 2,000 volunteers to pull off the 12- to 14-day event. Greeley attorney Jeff Bedingfield, who served as chairman of the Stampede Committee during the organization’s 75th anniversary three years ago, said, “It’s the one event that I’ve seen that draws upon a very large bank of volunteers that cuts across all lines. Without volunteers, the Stampede couldn’t be pulled off.”
Holdren says the Wranglers – 300 men and women – are the backbone of the Stampede. They – along with community, civic and church organizations with members of all ages – have a number of jobs to do, ranging from picking up trash after concerts to helping concert-goers find their seats; from making sure cowboys find where they need to be to helping line up parade entries. Volunteer organizations receive stipends from the Stampede, that this year totaled $125,000.
The 13-member Stampede Committee, with members representing a cross-section of the Northern Colorado community, is the driving force behind the Stampede. Though the time commitment probably averages 20 hours per week year-round, the truth of the matter is most committee members spend most of the spring and summer overseeing their respective duties, be it the parade, security, rodeos, night shows or barbecues. Committee terms were recently reduced to four years from six to allow more residents the opportunity to participate.
Lynn Settje, executive director of the Stampede, said growth of the event means many of the responsibilities traditionally handled by the committee have become too big for volunteers alone. This has necessitated a paid staff, which now numbers nine.
The Stampede is more than just a good time in June and July. It gives back to the community in various ways, from substantial capital improvements at Island Grove Park that benefit all organizations and events held there to $7,500 annually in college scholarships – a figure Settje said the Stampede would like to double, if not quadruple.
Also, in 1993-94 the Stampede Committee spearheaded the drive to enlarge the arena from 4,500 grandstand seats to 9,500; the arena can seat up to 14,000 for concerts when folding chairs are set up on the arena floor.
The arena also includes eight sky boxes that seat 22 people each and two clubhouse suites that seat up to 100 each.
The price tag on the project was $4.1 million, with the city of Greeley and Weld County each contributing $250,000. The remainder of the funds were raised by Stampede Committee members, former Committee members and staff.
“Eight months after the decision to build, we had collected the funds and turned the (completed) facility over to the city,” Settje said.
Why such growth for the Independence Stampede? Marketing, pure and simple.
In the late ’80s, the Stampede began an advertising blitz in Denver by partnering with Denver television stations and other media, Settje said. “Until then, 1 percent (of visitors) came from Denver. Now it’s 25 to 30 percent.”
This year the Stampede partnered with KUSA-Channel 9, which broadcast the first hour of the July 4th parade in Greeley to an estimated 1.3 million people in a six-state region.
Broadcasting the parade created a whole new set of challenges, Settje said, from ensuring the parade kept to a lively pace to coordinating street cleaners following equestrian entries to pass through the designated broadcast block only during commercials. The extra effort, however, could result in a tremendous payoff by enticing even more people to come to Greeley to experience the Stampede.
Not content to reach out just to folks nearby, the Stampede markets itself nationally, too, and places advertisements in such publications as AAA’s travel magazine and American Cowboy. Stampede staff also attend annual meetings of the American Bus Association and American Tourist Association in hopes of luring tour directors to make the Stampede a tour stop.
“It takes a while to build that,” Settje said, adding that about 15 buses made such stops this year.
The Stampede Committee and staff strives to make the event accessible to all families with family-day events and passes at reduced prices; reduced ticket prices for early bird sales; and events available at no charge, including an entertainment tent featuring both national and local entertainment and a petting zoo.
And then there’s the estimated $20 million economic return to the community and businesses that benefit from the multitude of visitors in need of motel rooms, meals and sundries.
Ever try finding a motel room in Greeley during the Stampede? It can’t be done, Setje said.
How much more can the event grow?
“What we want is to be the most successful event we can be,” Settje said. “There is a level of growth we can’t go beyond unless there are more capital improvements.”
What that cap is and when it will hit remains an unknown, Setje said. A likely scenario is when seating capacity is met for concerts and performances and remains at that level for several years.
If that does happen, the committee may deem it time to go to the next step and bring in even bigger night shows.
If bigger shows are on the bill, more room will be needed at the arena for additional seats.
But there’s also the possibility that nothing will change that much, and the Stampede will stay small enough to fit in its existing facilities.