Palm Springs Gets Back in the Saddle with First Rodeo in 17 years

A professional rodeo will rumble into Palm Springs for the first time in 17 years today, along with 140 animals, two stages of live music, 6,000 square feet of “high-end” Western retail merchandise, carnival rides and vendor booths.

“It's like cowboy Christmas,” local business owner and rodeo enthusiast Sig Hall said Thursday, as staff and volunteers set up the Palm Springs Wild West Fest and Mayor Frank Bogert Memorial PRCA Rodeo. The event runs through Sunday on a 10-acre site next to the Palm Springs Convention Center.

The event is named for Palm Springs' iconic cowboy, renaissance man and mayor, Frank Bogert, who helped brand the city a “cowboy Mecca” in the 1930s and '40s, said Christopher Burkhardt, CEO of Spur of the Moment Productions, which is putting on the rodeo.

Bogert died in March 2009 at the age of 99. Members of his family, friends, associates and admirers plan to attend this weekend, Burkhardt said.

The rodeo also harkens back to the annual Palm Springs Mounted Police Rodeo, which ran for more than four decades until 1993, said Ken Piner, a retired Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue team captain and member of the rodeo committee. “We do have that bit of nostalgia — that's what makes this particular project special” when compared to other rodeos, said Burkhardt, who's been in what he called the “Western lifestyle” business for the past 35 years.

Burkhardt estimated the new festival and rodeo would generate about $1.5 million in local economic impact through local and national advertising, plus helping to fill local hotel rooms and restaurants.

The free West Fest could draw as many as 9,000 visitors, and the ticketed rodeo could draw as many as 12,000 spectators during the three-day period, Burkhardt said. He said he didn't expect the rodeo would sell out because it's a new event.

The Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority doesn't have projected hotel occupancy figures, but, based on conversations with local hotel operators, “I hear that Palm Springs is going to be packed this weekend,” said CVA spokesman Mark Graves. That's due to an action-packed weekend including the rodeo, the BNP Paribas tennis tournament in Indian Wells and the La Quinta Arts Festival in La Quinta, Graves said. “Season has been very challenging the past several years, but it sounds like we're going to have a really good weekend,” Graves said.

If the West Fest and rodeo at least break even on the cost to produce, they'll return next year, Burkhardt said.

Joy Meredith, president of Main Street Palm Springs, said many downtown merchants are looking forward to a potential boost to their businesses from the event. The rodeo producers “are not trying to compete with us, they're just trying to add a layer of cool things to do,” Meredith said.

“I'm going to be wearing a cowboy hat.” Roxanne Mishler, co-owner of Palm Springs Carriages, said the horse carriage business plans to shuttle customers from its normal routes along the downtown corridor to the festivities near the convention center.

However, the event also has stirred debate across the valley over whether rodeo bulls, calves and horses are treated humanely—and whether the rugged sport should return to Palm Springs. A peaceful protest against the rodeo is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Tahquitz Canyon Way and Avenida Caballeros, a block away from the event.

“We recognize different people's points of view,” Burkhardt said. “Anyone is welcome to inspect our animals and see how pampered (they) really are.” The new West Fest also recalls the old Desert Circus — an annual citywide Western-themed event and fundraiser that ran roughly from the late 1930s through the mid-1970s. The Stagecoach country music festival's success in recent years indicates the West Fest and rodeo could succeed too, Burkhardt said.

“Those guys are a model for productions like us,” Burkhardt said of Stagecoach producer Goldenvoice. Desert Sun reporter Terria Smith contributed.