Local officials seek more answers on rodeo cancellation
City officials and local legislators said Monday they want more answers from the Illinois Department of Agriculture on its decision to pull support for the National High School Finals Rodeo.
Department representatives again cited state budget cuts as the reason for the move, but gave no explanation of the timing or why local officials learned of the decision only through news reports.
Springfield Mayor Frank Edwards and legislators are seeking a meeting later this week with representatives of Gov. Pat Quinn’s staff.
“We know they have to start making cuts, and that’s all well and good,” said Edwards. “But we’re in the ninth inning of something that’s already been set. You don’t just pull the plug.”
Agriculture Department officials said last week the agency could no longer afford the estimated $1 million annual cost of hosting the rodeo, a figure that has been questioned by those working to keep the event.
In response to e-mailed questions Monday about the handling of the announcement, department spokesman Jeff Squibb again said it was a a matter of finances.
“The state is working to recover from unprecedented budget challenges,” Squibb said. “During these times, when struggles exist to maintain basic, mandated services, spending additional funds to support the rodeo is not in the state's best financial interest.
“This is no reflection on the merits of the rodeo, simply recognition that the Department of Agriculture is not in a position to add $1 million in spending to its budget at this time,” he said.
Edwards said rodeo supporters will settle for a phone conference with state officials if the weather prevents a face-to-face get-together. But he said the group is working against a tight deadline if the rodeo is to be held in the city as scheduled in 2012 and 2013.
“I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up, but we want to do this sooner rather than later,” said Edwards. “This has a huge impact on our community, our hotels, our restaurants and the entire state.”
The rodeo has rotated every two years in the recent past among Springfield; Gallup, N.M. and Gillette, Wyo. It was last held here in 2007.
Unlike other events at the fairgrounds, the rodeo did not pay to use the facilities, according to the Agriculture Department.
State Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, said Monday that he, state Rep. Raymond Poe and state Sen. Larry Bomke, both R-Springfield, also have asked that this week’s meeting include representatives from the Department of Agriculture and Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
“They (the rodeo) still have to go out and do the bidding process,” said Brauer. “If we get the opportunity, we can show them we’re still interest, if we can find a way to fund it."
Squibb said department director Tom Jennings knew about the planned meeting and agency representatives welcome a chance to discuss their decision with legislators.
Brauer said legislators could ask for an additional appropriation or perhaps corporate sponsors could be found to help cover rodeo costs.
He also questioned the Agriculture Department’s $1 million figure.
“There’s always been concerns (about the rodeo cost) … but when you look at how it turns over in local businesses, the amount of taxes should more than pay for the rodeo,” said Brauer.
An Illinois group that opposes rodeos as cruel to animals on Monday released a letter it sent to Edwards and Poe asking that they drop efforts to save the event.
“It’s sad to see two supposed leaders so readily give up any semblance of dignity or credibility for any reason, especially the relatively small amount of money from rodeo people,” said the letter from Steve Hinki, president of SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness).
The SHARK letter questioned rodeo attendance estimates and said local officials are showing an “utter lack of concern for humane laws” by pursuing the event.
Family backs return of high school rodeo
A local family that boasts two generations of rodeo competitors hopes city officials are successful in convincing the state to let Springfield host the National High School Finals Rodeo in 2012 and 2013.
“The Springfield facility was made for this,” said Nancy Handegan of Taylorville. “And how many times could you bring that many high school students together and not have major issues?”
Handegan competed in high school rodeo in 1974, the first year Illinois joined the National High School Rodeo Association. Her daughter, Veronica, now 22 and studying at Western Illinois University, placed in the top four at the nationals during all four years of her high school career, including 2006 and 2007 in Springfield.
Ten of Veronica’s cousins either participated or are participating in high school rodeo, including Ben and Cody Metsker of Taylorville, who also competed with Handegan in Springfield.
Nancy Handegan said a niece who lives near Galesburg is the state’s leader in breakaway calf roping.
“She was excited because it (the finals competition) was going to be here in Illinois her junior and senior year,” Handegan said.
The rodeo draws families from as far away as Canada, Hawaii and Australia, Handegan noted.
“Springfield is probably one of the better locations because it’s more central,” making it easier for participants to haul their animals and equipment, she said
For Handegan and her family, the rodeo is a family event that promotes respect for others and animals. They see it as a plus for Springfield.
“I want people to see the positive side of this organization,” she said. “I would hope (the state) would reconsider.”
-- Amanda Reavy