Think Out Loud

Pendleton Round-Up will again ‘Let ’er Buck!’

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
May 19, 2021 5:28 p.m. Updated: May 27, 2021 4:23 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, May 19

The crowd at opening day of the Pendleton Round-up rodeo.

The crowd at opening day of the Pendleton Round-up rodeo in 2018.

Emily Cureton / OPB


Pendleton Round-Up was cancelled last year for the first time since 1943, because of the pandemic. Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she fully expects the event will be able to proceed this year. Steve Chrisman is the economic development director for the City of Pendleton and Pat Reay is the Pendleton Round-Up publicity director. They join us with details on what the return of the iconic event could mean for the city and surrounding region.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Pendleton Round-Up started in 1910, and it’s been held every year since then except for three years. Two of them were during World War II, the third was last year, but it seems Round-Up will happen again. Last week Oregon Governor Kate Brown said, “Let ‘er buck!”, and that she fully expects Round-Up will be back this September.

So what would it look like, and what would it mean for Pendleton? For answers to these questions and more, I’m joined by Pat Reay, the publicity director for the Pendleton Round-Up, and Steve Chrisman, the economic development director for the city of Pendleton. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Pat Reay and Steve Chrisman: Thank you very much.

Dave Miller: Pat Reay, what went through your mind when you heard the governor say that she would fully expect Round-Up to go forward this year.

Pat Reay: What went through our mind was exactly what she said, “Let ‘er buck!”. We are extremely excited about hosting guests to the community, to the region, for an iconic Eastern Oregon event.

Dave Miller: Just to be clear, plans were already underway before she said that? Your assumption already was that this was going to happen one way or another?

Pat Reay: Well, I wouldn’t say it was going to happen one way or the other, but yes we’ve been planning for two years for this event coming up this year. You know, with unfortunate circumstances last year, our boards are still meeting and planning as if we’re going to have a full event with all of the activities and all of the attendees

Dave Miller: Steve Chrisman. Some of our listeners may remember that you and I talked about this back in September, but can you remind us how important Round-Up week is to Pendleton’s and the entire region’s economy.

Steve Chrisman: Yeah, David, It’s impossible to overstate it. I mean, it is the biggest week of the year for most of our leisure and hospitality industry, and our crafts. We have a wonderful collection of craftspeople and artisans out here. They make a huge portion of their annual income off of that one week a year. I mean it is magnificent. I have to ask David, have you been?

Dave Miller: No, not to Round-Up . I missed the year that Think Out Loud went for the 100th anniversary. No, I’m still kicking myself.

Steve Chrisman: I am a Northeasterner born and raised, and I have never seen anything quite like it. It’s the greatest piece of Americana I’ve ever witnessed, and it’s only a few hours from most of your listeners, so we hope they’ll come out. It’s incredible. And the retailers all rely heavily on it. Pendleton has hotel rooms more in line with a coastal vacation town than an egg town in Eastern Oregon, thanks almost entirely to the Round-Up. So it’s big, real big.

Dave Miller: So what did it mean last year to get that economic hit for Round-Up to not happen?

Steve Chrisman: It’s crushing for so many of the small businesses. I know that Pendleton has been hyper vigilant, hyper aggressive in trying to help our businesses, to help our leisure and hospitality industry stay alive. The Round-Up, I don’t know if Pat wants to talk about it, but put forward a tremendous amount of money in grants in addition to state and federal grants. The Pendleton Development Commission, Urban Renewal, and Round-Up Association pulled out all the stops to make sure that these small businesses stayed alive. Part of Round-Up, and I think Pat would speak to this, is really the city becomes alive. There are booths everywhere. There’s energy and excitement, a carnival downtown. It’s really not just in the Round-Up grounds, even though that’s the focal point, it’s really a citywide event.


Dave Miller: So Pat Reay, you were listening as I just talked to Pat Allen from the Oregon Health authority, obviously, the overall theme for the last couple weeks has been this slow easing of many of the restrictions on our lives as nationwide the numbers are getting better. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty and the restrictions in many ways still remain. What’s it like to plan an event for tens of thousands of people, with uncountable moving parts, where you have to plan in advance, and when you don’t know exactly what the rules are going to be?

Pat Reay: Yeah David, it is a challenge. But I think what we’re encouraged about is the changing of the guidelines and slowly opening things up to allow us to have our traditional event. And again, I can’t impress upon you enough that the Pendleton Round-Up board of directors, Happy Canyon board of directors, we continue to monitor the guidelines in the requirements that are ever changing. It’s because of good partnerships.

We’ve been in contact with the Governor’s office. We’re in contact with the board of County commissioners or county Health Department. The city of Pendleton is a great partner of ours. We continue to monitor those changes and we’re hopeful. The positive thing about the majority of our event is that for the most part, it’s an outdoor venue. There are some indoor activities, but for the most part, whether it be concerts in the Happy Canyon Arena, the extreme bowls event in the Happy Canyon Arena, or the iconic Pendleton Round-Up in the Round-Up Arena, they’re all outdoor events.

We’re pretty fortunate that we’re the second full week of September, so we’re an event that’s out there a little ways. You know, we’re hopeful that as we continue to move through this summer, the vaccination rate continues to go up, the infection rate continues to go down, and the guidelines and restrictions continue to be eased, so we can host this community event. As Steve mentioned earlier, this has a very significant economic impact to the Pendleton community and the region. It’s not just what goes on in the Round-Up arena. It’s everything that goes on in the community for 10 days.

Dave Miller: Steve Chrisman, you gave a presentation to the City council recently to get them to support new money for a new tourism marketing strategy. In describing Round-Up, the presentation you gave noted that quote, “For one week a year, we under promise and over deliver the greatest show on grass”, but for the rest of time, 11-3/4 months per year, the slides said that you quote, “grossly over promise and grossly under deliver.” This is about Pendleton’s overall current tourism strategy. What exactly do you mean?

Steve Chrisman: One of the unique things, just for some insider info on the Round-Up, is that it’s on grass, which is very extremely rare in the Rodeo World. As an outsider/transplant, I was on the Oregon coast for 15 years prior to moving here, I think Pendleton is a remarkable community. Pendleton Woolen Mills started here. Pendleton Whiskey is named after the community. The Oregon trail runs right through the middle of the city. The Round-Up is just spectacular. I thought it was gonna be a dirt paddock with high school bleachers around it. It’s a 17,000 person stadium that has not sold out to sponsorship. It feels like you’ve walked into 1910, which to me is magnificent.

I just think the community, and we’ve developed a wonderful group of partners between the Chamber, Travel Pendleton, the Round-Up Association, and the Happy Canyon Association, there is so much more that can be done with these incredible assets they built over 120 years that, I think we’re going to make all these wonderful pieces build up to the Round-Up at the end of the summer and hopefully create some new revenue streams. Make the weekends more lucrative so that we’re not in as such dire straights as we were. This was, this was a hard year, David. There’s no question.

Dave Miller: So basically you want to capitalize on the name of Pendleton and make the city more of a, if not year-round, a summer-long Western themed destination. Is that a fair way to put it?

Steve Chrisman: Exactly, there are going to be wagon wagon rides. You can take a tour on a wagon through the Round-Up and the Happy Canyon Arena. You can go horseback riding, there’s live music on main. There’s going to be an underground tour, which is amazing and is longer than Seattle’s. It comes alive. It’s gonna have a bar down there, you go down and drink at the old, the old saloon down there. So it’s gonna be one heck of a party and hopefully a 14 weekend advertisement for the Round-Up, which you know is the crown prize of all events.

Dave Miller: Pat Reay, is your thinking that the 2021 Round-Up is going to be the same size, and just as big, as previous years?

Pat Reay: That’s our goal. Kick open the chutes and let the guests come in and experience what we’ve done for 110 plus years now. This will be our 111th. Our goal is to open it up to the community and to be good community partners, as Steve mentioned. We’re doing tours to bring folks to the communities starting on June 5th, and they will last every Saturday until September 4th.

You have two different opportunities to come down be part of the Pendleton Round-Up

Happy Canyon complex history tradition. Come to town, experience Pendleton, and see there’s more to offer than just what’s at the Round-Up grounds. We’re partners and we understand the importance and significance of the event for a one-week timeframe, but we need a healthy economy in the region and we’re committed to that. We were committed to it from our Let ‘Er Buck Cares program in 2020. We’re committed to it in the future. We understand that community commitment is one of our pillars. We are a non-profit organization and that is extremely important to our board.

Dave Miller: Pat Reay and Steve Chrisman, thanks very much for your time.

Pat Reay and Steve Chrisman: Let ‘er Buck! On with the show.

Dave Miller: I was assuming we’d get at least one more. You did not disappoint. Pat Reay is the Pendleton Round-Up publicity director. Steve Chrisman is the economic development director for the city of Pendleton.

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