In Rodeo Dust-Up, Both Sides Try To Heal Breach

Press conference sets record straight on failed negotiations between chamber and Pro Rodeo Committee

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It comes down to this: $5,000, a wealth of miscommunications, swirls of rumor — and a few broken hearts.

The chief actors in the confusing and painful, but perhaps finally friendly divorce in the Payson Rodeo’s family drama gathered on Thursday for a “clear the air” makeup session, as reporters scribbled notes.

“We’ve got no axes to grind with anybody,” said Bob Klaver, vice president of the pro rodeo board.

“We probably got lucky we didn’t get it,” said pro rodeo board member Henry Apfel, about a much-debated $10,000-a-year offer to buy rights to run the rodeo that the committee made and then canceled.

“You can’t go back, you’ve got to go forward — and we’ll always be there for them,” said Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong, who has been the hub of the wheel for the August Doin’s for more than a decade.

“We never intended for this to turn into the Hatfields and McCoys,” said Payson Tourism and and Economic Vitality Director Cameron Davis.

“The Pro Rodeo Committee has been nothing but gracious and upfront and sincere to make this rodeo as good as it can be,” said Chris Wolf, chamber president and director of the Payson Regional Medical Center. “But we had a decision to make and the chamber just could not come up with the $100,000 expense of this rodeo and the $20,000 to $30,000 in losses in the last three years was a heavy burden.”

The dust-up centered on Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce’s decision late last year to cut its formal ties with the mostly volunteer Pro Rodeo Committee and instead turn the job of running the rodeo over to the newly formed Rodeo Preservation Alliance.

The chamber’s $10,000 loss last year prompted the board to make the shift, after months of inconclusive negotiations with the Pro Rodeo Committee.

Last year the Pro Rodeo Committee made about $13,000 on the rodeo, most of which it donated to local charities. The chamber wanted to make changes that would have yielded the committee more like $8,000 — an effective $5,000 cut.

The Pro Rodeo Committee at one point offered to pay the chamber $60,000 over six years so it could run the rodeo on its own. In the midst of negotiations with other groups to take over the rodeo, the chamber asked for more time to consider the offer — which the Pro Rodeo Committee then withdrew.

Meanwhile, the chamber had discussions with the Gracie Lee Haught Foundation, the Town of Payson and the Tonto Apache Tribe about taking over the rodeo. They all balked at the cost and likely loss.

The chamber ultimately assisted in forming the Payson Rodeo Preservation Alliance with Chuck Jackman as its chairman, since he had experience with rodeos including service on the Pro Rodeo Committee prior to 2000.

The Alliance board includes Meg Turlukis, Donna Kline, Dan Haapala, Farrell Hoosava and Cameron Davis, with other positions held by Roundup Publisher John Naughton, Payson Superintendent of Schools Casey O’Brien, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and Payson Councilor Su Connell.

The press conference represented an effort to water down the dust devil rumors of a bitter split and allegations of political maneuvering. In the end, everyone present agreed they’ll continue to work hard to make the rodeo a success.

Wolf said the chamber will still give the Pro Rodeo Committee the exclusive right to sell buttons and half of the profit from the 50/50 fund-raising drawings. In addition, the Pro Rodeo Committee will sponsor a dance at the Oxbow, an event that last year netted the group about $4,000. The committee will also continue to run its own rodeo in May.

The press conference also served as rumor control, given the vague allegations that Payson Mayor Kenny Evans had played a leading role in the changeover for perhaps political purposes.

Evans opened the briefing by recounting his own involvement. He said chamber officials initiated discussions trying to seek some way to avoid the ongoing financial losses.

Evans said he had discussions with the various people involved in the problem. He said the group appealed to him to front the money to pay several thousand dollars in registration fees to preserve the rodeo’s slot in the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association schedule and that he left a blank check with Cameron Davis before leaving on vacation.

He also said he barely knew Chuck Jackman, but suggested him as a key person to work with the Alliance based on his experience with rodeos. Jackman is married to Hallie Jackman, the developer of a condominium project off Main Street. Evans has been working with Jackman to convince her to contribute money toward the creation of a stream and trail and waterfall system in her project, which would also serve to clean the waters of one of the Green Valley lakes.

Evans said his main involvement was to try to facilitate agreement between the various groups concerned and that he serves on none of the affected boards.

The session helped answer some leftover questions for both sides.

The pro rodeo board members suggested the group was always leery about taking on the whole responsibility for the rodeo, given the tough economic climate and the chamber’s mounting losses.

Armstrong said the key problem was the town’s 3,500-seat, uncovered arena, which couldn’t generate the ticket sales necessary to provide enough prize money to draw top cowboys. He said the rodeo committee’s contacts on the rodeo circuit had drawn many top cowboys.

One key area of contention aired at the meeting was Jackman’s sometimes blunt presentation at one committee meeting and even things like whether people who volunteered at the rodeo would be able to use the VIP tent, with its free food and drinks. Instead, the Alliance plans to give workers a $5 food voucher and only allow them into the VIP tent after the rodeo.

“It seemed like kind of a slap in the face,” said Apfel.

Members of the Pro Rodeo Committee concluded by wishing the chamber and the alliance well in continuing the rodeo’s 125-year tradition — despite their own sense of loss about this year becoming just spectators.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Armstrong of the breach. “But you gotta do what you gotta do,” he added in regard to the chamber’s drive to cut costs.

“But the bottom line is, if push comes to shove and they need us — we’ll be there,” he concluded.

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