three forks rodeo bleachers

New bleachers gleam in the sunlight Tuesday at the Three Forks Rodeo Arena. The bleachers have ramps and can accommodate more people than old ones. The COVID-19 crisis, which may or may not shut down the infamous Three Forks Rodeo, has thrown a wrench into Three Forks’ plan to pay for the bleachers.

The Three Forks Rodeo Arena Board is scrambling to overcome two problems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, even as preparations are underway for the this weekend’s first event in the arena since a gleaming new set of bleachers was installed this spring.

The first hurdle is the postponement of the town’s annual NRA Rodeo – described by board secretary Christina Kamps as “the biggest weekend in Three Forks” – from July 17-18 until the end of August. The second and not entirely unrelated problem is figuring out how to pay the $532,264 bill for new bleachers in the arena, as the city still has not heard whether its application for Rural Development grant and loan funds for the project have been approved. 

Prior to the COVID crisis, the city council voted earlier this year to approve the bleacher replacement project, which was identified as a priority need almost 25 years ago and brought to the forefront more recently after a woman attending the rodeo was injured on the old set of bleachers. The new bleachers can seat about 2,300 spectators, compared to 1,800 on the old set, and the new design allows for future expansion and handicapped accessibility. 

Upon approving the project, city officials were confident the loan could be repaid. In a normal year the rodeo and other events at the arena generate sufficient funds to service the debt.

Then the pandemic hit.

Though the decision about Rural Development awards was expected by the end of April, city Treasurer Kelly Smith said this week that the decision still has not been announced, due to pandemic-induced delays. That prompted the city to apply last week for a $310,000 state INTERCAP loan to cover the bleacher bills in the the event the city is turned down by Rural Development.

“We’re looking at multiple funding sources,” Mayor Sean Gifford said Wednesday. “All this was done pre-pandemic. Looking in the rear-view mirror, there’s a lot of hindsight.

“Nobody could have predicted this,” he added. 

In addition to public funding, the rodeo board is conducting a “Bleacher Backer” fund drive, with a goal of raising $120,000, half of which had been raised as of this week. 

“Start your article with ‘Donations Needed!’,” Smith suggested when contacted by the Belgrade News this week. Details about the fund-raiser can be found on the Three Forks 

Rodeo website.

Gifford noted the pandemic likely has prevented people who might otherwise have donated to the project from contributing, simply because of employment and economic problems caused by the COVID shutdown. 

Funding concerns will be eased considerably if the rodeo can be held in August, but that will depend on whether Phase 3 of Gov. Steve Bullock’s state reopening plan is in effect by then. Gifford said his is uneasy because new COVID-19 cases have been reported in Gallatin County this month, adding to the uncertainty about the rodeo taking place at all.

Kamps said a final decision about whether to hold the rodeo will be made by Aug. 7.

Even if the state has not entered Phase 3 by then, Kamps said arena will see some use this summer. The High Winds Rodeo is taking place in the newly renovated arena this weekend – an event that is possible because so many attendees are family groups who can sit together instead of 6 feet apart. A team-roping series is scheduled for the arena over Fourth of July weekend.

Gifford lauded the commitment of the rodeo board members to endure the COVID crisis, noting that many have ponied up their own money to bolster the arena fund-raiser. That proves how important the arena and events are to the city’s culture, he said.

“Rodeo is a big thing in Three Forks,” he said. “We’re the last one standing in Gallatin County.”