Johnny Walker was born on a rural ranch in Pueblo County, but was well aware of his neighbors, a force thousands strong, to the north. Walker’s family ranch borders Fort Carson, and he grew up in the presence of its soldiers. His respect for the military was ingrained during his youth and, as an adult, the general manager of the Norris-Penrose Event Center searched for his own way to give back to his community and his country.
“No one enjoys their freedom more than a cowboy. They love their freedom,” Walker said. “And there’s a whole group of people fighting for it — for me. [Military personnel and veterans are] my favorite people in the world.”
‘A good fit’
Walker started volunteering for the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in 2003 as a way to cope following Sept. 11, 2001.
“I have a background in ranching,” he said. “I grew up on a ranch in Pueblo and did rodeo in my youth. It was kind of a good fit.”
Walker worked his way onto the board of directors. When the former general manager stepped down, the foundation considered hiring a professional venue manager.
“It was hard to find the right fit — someone who understood local ties with charities, as well as venue management,” he said. “Since I was working so hard volunteering, the board decided if they paid me, I might work even harder.”
In 2011, Walker was named GM of the for-profit Norris-Penrose Event Center, which operates under the nonprofit Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation. Money raised by the event center goes to the nonprofit, which in turn gives money to military nonprofits. Walker said the center raises about $100,000 a year, much of it via the center’s signature, four-day event in July — the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.
Rallying for the cause
While it had existed for more than a decade, the rodeo was officially tied to the military in 1946, while located on the western grounds of The Broadmoor. Originally dubbed the Will Rogers Stadium, the arena was built in 1938 by Spencer Penrose, and would become a venue used to entertain troops returning from World War II. When the Gaylord family purchased The Broadmoor in the 1970s, the contract stipulated the arena be moved.
“A bunch of organizations rallied, including The Broadmoor, El Pomar and some local donors,” Walker said of retaining the asset. “The land here is 160 acres and was earmarked for a park or open space. The county took possession of the land and created the Spencer Penrose Equestrian Center.”
In 2004, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation acquired the property and took over leadership of the rodeo, as well as other functions hosted at the center.
Those include the Ride for the Brand Championship Ranch Rodeo, the Blue Jeans and Brass Gala, and the Cowgirls and Cocktails event. All events raise money for military charities except for Cowgirls and Cocktails, which benefits local women affected by breast cancer.
A diverse portfolio
In addition to hosting events, the Norris-Penrose Event Center has several ancillary operations that raise additional funds.
The center has a banquet room, which can be rented for weddings and corporate meetings. An indoor arena allows for home and garden shows and winter events including barrel races, tractor pulls and super cross and monster truck events. The center can also board and care for up to 70 horses at a time, and plays host to the high school state cross-country championships.
“It’s the only race where they get to finish in a stadium with their parents sitting in the seats watching them,” Walker said. That race runs through the adjacent Bear Creek Park, another proud partnership for the equestrian center.
“We’re very blessed to have Bear Creek Park here. They’re a great partnership and we work very well with them. … We wouldn’t be what we are without them,” he said.
In all, the grounds have 34 buildings and enough stalls to host 350 horses during events.
The foundation also owns 50 percent of Summit Catering, which has exclusive rights at the center while maintaining a large amount of business off-site.
Walker said he continues to explore the possibility of further diversifying the business model.
“There are opportunities in the marketplace right now for corporate leadership programs utilizing horses,” he said. ”We would have to own our own horses at that time, but we can do that. We have the place to keep them. It’s just the capital expenditure needed to purchase them. We’d want to partner with local hotels. Especially The Broadmoor, which spends a lot of money bringing in corporate events.”
Walker said the center is also in talks with Adventures Out West, an outdoor excursion company, about starting a weekly, summer, Wednesday night rodeo and chuck-wagon dinner as soon as 2016.
Best in the sport
Last year marked the first that the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo was not sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Walker said that was a good thing, and attributes the decision to break away to a forward-thinking board.
“The board of directors for the [rodeo] always consists of the top business people in town,” he said. “The board decided to leave PRCA sanctioning and went to an open platform. That allowed for additional corporate sponsorship.”
Cinch western apparel has since become a title sponsor and has the weight to attract big names, Walker said.
“We’re able to treat professional rodeo cowboys and cowgirls like the sportsmen -— the athletes — they are. The payout has gotten much, much higher. For instance, in 2013 [the winner] would get $3,200. Last year it was $16,000. And competitors don’t have to pay an entry fee. It’s invitation only and we get the best in the sport.”
Walker said the rodeo has the potential to be one of the top events in North America.
“There are bigger rodeos than us. Houston, Cheyenne and Calgary — all can’t-miss. We’re starting to climb that ladder. There will come a day where I feel like we can compete with Cheyenne and maybe even surpass them. We have the hotels and restaurants — the infrastructure in place to grow. They don’t.”
Walker said the rodeo’s potential economic impact is “unlimited. There could come a day where this is a 10-day rodeo.”
He said the rodeo currently draws 26,000, and as many as 30 percent of attendees travel from out of state.
“That benefits everybody.”
Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, 75th Anniversary
When: July 8-11
What: The best athletes in rodeo are competing for top prize money in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding.
Info and tickets: pikespeakorbust.org