Pendleton Round-Up's Pat Owen, 1928

Pendleton Round-Up's Pat Owen, 1928

Oregon Historical Society

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In a normal year, the 17,000-person town of Pendleton in Eastern Oregon would be swelling with tens of thousands of visitors for the annual Round-Up, the city’s signature rodeo.

The streets would be filled with horseback-mounted bands and parades of rodeo competitors and representatives of Native tribes.

But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the rodeo was canceled for the first time since 1943, in the middle of World War II.

Steve Chrisman, Pendleton’s economic development director, told OPB’s “Think Out Loud" that the community always looked forward to the rodeo.

“The air is electric,” he said. “There are horses and pens covering just about every inch of the city, RVs everywhere — there’s just an energy that’s hard to describe unless you’ve been to it.”

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Chisman said that local hotels and restaurants count on Round-Up tourists for revenue. Hotel rooms from Pendleton to Walla Walla and Hermiston are usually filled. But without visitors, Chrisman said the local economy has been struggling.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat what a shocker it is to not have it going on," Chrisman said.

Businesses in Pendleton were already having a rough few months.

After opening in May, many were forced to close again in July when Gov. Kate Brown sent Umatilla County back to baseline status due to coronavirus outbreaks.

The county is now back in Phase 1 and businesses can reopen with certain limitations. But Chrisman said the stops and starts were tough.

“The hard part for these businesses is not knowing when they can go back to just running their business and trying to make money,” Chrisman said. “To not have that firm date when you know that it will be safe to just do what they want to do, which is just open their doors and serve customers and make money, is extremely hard. It’s not a light switch that you can turn on and off.”

Still, Chrisman remains optimistic about the city’s economic future.

“This is a one-time massive dip,” he said. “This is certainly an unfortunate time, it is hard not to feel heartbroken for these small business owners - so many depend heavily on the infusion of money that Round-Up brings at the end of the summer. But we’ll be back bigger and better next year."

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