Greeley Stampede makes significant comeback after recession puts it in the red | TheFencePost.com

Greeley Stampede makes significant comeback after recession puts it in the red

Bridgett Weaver Reporter

Justin Watada remembers the days of being afraid to answer the phone. The dark days, he calls them.

Those were the days when no one was sure if the Greeley Stampede would emerge from the debt that came from years of abundance brought to a screeching halt by the recession.

Those days started with the economic crash in 2007, and they spiraled out of control until 2009, when the Stampede was close to closing. Every time the phone rang, it was bad news.

"During those dark times when we were having financial hardships, it was tough to figure out if the Stampede was going to keep its doors open for the following year," Watada said.

The days of old, when Stampede officials were forced to pay exorbitant fees to keep top-notch entertainment acts, landed them in the hole.

"I think what happened is it just kind of snowballed," Watada said. "Our event, over time, didn't change and evolve as it needed to."

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In 2007, the Stampede lost about $50,000, but it had enough in the bank to absorb the loss. The losses continued growing through 2010, when the event finally used up all the extra funds, and ended the year $226,823 in the red.

In 2011, after some big changes, the event turned around, closing the year with a $501,089 fund balance.

Watada worked through the tough times, holding different positions with the Stampede from 2002 to 2011. This year, Watada is prepping the Stampede as the general manager, his first year in that position, and he is happy to report that Greeley's oldest summer festival is now debt-free.

There are many pieces to the Stampede's comeback. Officials cut expensive concert lineups in favor of cheaper, up-and-coming acts. Committee members, who spent freely in the past, are now held accountable for each purchase. This year, they started a rainy day fund. Most important, the community stepped up to bail out the Stampede — a show of financial support for one of Greeley's most beloved summertime events.

All these factors add up to a change in philosophy, and with it, profitability. Stampede officials no longer think of it as a festival. It's now strictly business.

"It's awesome to see because I was here during those dark times," Watada said. "Now to come back at this point when the (Stampede is) really profitable and they've made some changes as far as spending and budgeting — it's good to see that we're looking at it as a business."

Precautions

As part of the plan to make sure the Stampede never comes close to the brink of extinction, committee members and Stampede staff started a rainy day fund.

The fund is designed to absorb a bad day during the Stampede, something that is often quite literally caused by rainy days.

In the past, a few rainy days could have been enough to sink the Stampede. Now, they're bringing in enough to squirrel away some money for those stormy scenarios.

The Stampede ended 2014 with $1.55 million in the bank.

Watada and Chairwoman Patty Gates agreed that after the wet May weather this year, it's easy to see the need for such a fund.

While weather does affect turnout and bottom line outcomes, Watada said the show will go on regardless.

"So long as it's safe for people to be out here, we're going to proceed with it," he said.

Still, there's no doubt bad weather discourages many from going. To build in a little security, Watada said Stampede officials have worked to capture as many ticket pre-sales as possible. As of the beginning of June this year, ticket sales were ahead of the same date last year.

The officials also decided to start a park admission fee of $5 per person a few years ago.

While it was originally started to create some extra revenue, Watada said the fee helped make the Stampede a safer place for families.

"It's helped us really control our environment more," he said. "We have better tracking of people coming in and out of the park."

Gates explained that because of fights and some possible gang activity in the past, the event began developing a reputation.

"I think it was magnified to a level that was more perception than reality. We want folks to understand this is a safe, marvelous event," she said. "We had zero incidents out here last year. You can talk to the Greeley Police Department and the (Weld) Sheriff's Office. They believe the admission was the turning point."

Better bit by bit

Many people had their hands in helping to revive the Stampede, but Gates said it came down to a few decisions.

Perhaps the best decision, Gates said, was deciding what nightly concerts the Stampede could afford.

Gates said the committee made the decision to quit bringing in the glitzy, glamorous acts — which they increasingly could not afford — and instead stick to ones that are just as entertaining but a little more affordable.

Big country stars generally cost between $750,000 to $1 million, and they are guaranteed the money whether Stampede sells tickets or not.

That led to some significant problems in the past. The Stampede had to charge more for tickets to pay for big names such as Tim McGraw and ultimately found that most area residents weren't willing to pay the premium.

"It was nice to have the Tim McGraws and Tody Keiths and Faith Hills coming in here, but it put it out of reach for a lot of the folks that we really needed to bring to the park," Gates said. "We aren't the $95-concert-ticket kind of market, and we're not trying to be."

Changes to the entertainment options in northern Colorado also put a damper on the Stampede's success, Watada said.

After the Budweiser Events Center was built in 2003 in Loveland, and areas like Fort Collins, Windsor and Longmont started more summer festivals, it got harder to stay afloat.

"It used to be that the Stampede was the top dog," Watada said. "It was the only attraction going on in northern Colorado. But now you have the Budweiser Events Center. You have other things going on so that people have entertainment options now."

Now, instead of booking the hottest country acts, night show chairman John DeWitt searches for up-and-coming artists and offers contracts as far as a year out to secure a lower price, gambling that the artists will be just as popular, if not bigger, a year later. The gamble worked last year with Jake Owen, and this year with the popular The Band Parry.

Gates said their entertainment packages, which offered five concert tickets for $50 until May 1, have really helped draw people in.

"If you can buy five concert tickets for $50, even if you only come to three concerts and you do that math, this is the best deal from an entertainment standpoint," she said. "I think it speaks for itself — it's working."

Financials

In 2014, the Stampede reported total revenue of $5.2 million, almost $1 million more than the year before.

At the end of last year it had $1.55 million in the bank, a far cry from the days of debt collectors.

Even with some potential economic impacts from a slipping oil and gas industry, Gates said they have stabilized the Stampede enough to withstand the ups and downs of the economy.

Oil and gas companies remain some of the biggest investors in the Stampede, but even if they have to pull some of their donations, Gates said they'll be ready.

"They're going through some changes, which we understand," she said, "but we need to make sure the Stampede can still continue to be profitable even as that industry goes up and down."

Gates explained that it wasn't just a poor economy or a loss of donors that landed the Stampede in a sticky spot.

"It was more trying to continue what we thought everybody needed and wanted," she said. "So you get one year where you're in the hole, then you carry that loss forward, then you have a second loss and suddenly that becomes very difficult to overcome."

It took a few years, but the Stampede is completely debt free with "money in the bank," Gates said.

Despite the committee's exhaustive efforts in those days, they had to call on the community for help.

The banks worked with Stampede to defer and change payment plans. Longtime vendors agreed to take late payments for working the event and the community gathered to make sure the ship didn't sink. A few even made donations to the cause.

"It was truly a testament to the value this event has to the community. I think everybody recognized we can't let this happen so we're going to step up," she said. "But in stepping up that created the very clear sense that we need to be good fiduciary stewards now and make sure this doesn't happen again."

But none of it would have happened without the staff members who picked up the pieces and started rebuilding.

"It was an amazing time for the staff and also the committee," Gates said. "They really did a marvelous job and repaid every dime. It was creative, frankly, and the way it all worked out showed the commitment."

The new niche they found for the Stampede is where it needs to be, Gates said. They're back and ready to put on a great event this year, and in the coming years.

"This is who we are," she said. "We are uniquely the Stampede and we have figured out the value we bring. It's working."

Bridgett Weaver covers business and agriculture in Weld County. To contact her email bweaver@greeleytribune.com or follow her on Twitter at @cityofbridgetts.

20 years of Greeley Stampede finances

1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Revenue $432,410 $418,858 $428,148 $463,924 $508,831 $547062

Expenses $396,902 $395,803 $440,879 $421,671 $470,515 $537,197

Profit/loss $35,508 $23,055 ($12,731) $42,253 $38,316 $9,865

Fund balance $19,254 $17,387 $27,468 $41,621 $81,141 $89,544

1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995

R $643,755 $883,777 $898,868 N/A $1.28M *$4.64M

E $638,098 $776,952 $925,947 N/A $1.18M $1.32M

P/L $5,657 $106,825 ($27,079) N/A $108,191 $3.33M

B $70,155 $141,812 $103,255 N/A $147,591 $169,870

*Stampede raised $3.9 million in donations to build an addition to the Stampede Arena.

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001

R $2.3M $2.16M $2.42M $2.32M $3.01M $2.89M

E $1.7M $1.98M $1.89M $2.199M $2.83M $3.1M

P/L $608,294 $229,500 $522,410 $122,797 $181,974 $198,180

B $148,756 $200130 $262,149 $266,149 $259,618 $1.15M

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

R $4.6M $4.85M $4.56M $4.65M $4.74M $5M

E $4.45M $4.86M $4.68M $4.52M $4.79M $5.12M

P/L $148,528 ($11,882) ($123,065) $130,089 ($51,216) ($105,436)

B $511,415 $499,533 $376,468 $506,557 $455,341 $349,905

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014

R $5.23M $4.47M $4.5M $4.1M $4.75M $4.16M $5.2M

E $5.23M $4.59M $4.85M $3.588M $4.25M $4.7M

P/L ($114,468) ($126,853 ($335,482) $501,089 $503,712 $292,989 $482,201

B $235,435 $108,583 (226,823) $274,266 $777,978 $1.07M $1.55M

Source: Greeley Stampede Internation Revenue Service Form 990s