Standing in front of a crowd Dec. 14, Save the Rodeo Grounds organizer Blair Maus said the Jackson Hole Rodeo’s iconic nature should keep the town and county from even considering repurposing it.
Then she made a comparison.
“New York City has a big affordable housing problem, and they have a large piece of property that they could increase their supply with, and that’s Central Park,” she said.
But the Big Apple hasn’t torn up Central Park, she said. And, just as integral as Central Park is to the fabric of New York City, Maus said, Jackson Hole needs the rodeo.
And that means keeping it right where it is. That was the common sentiment last Tuesday when over 100 people gathered for a Save the Rodeo Grounds Town Hall, held as the town of Jackson and Teton County gear up to consider moving the rodeo and adjacent fairgrounds to build housing in their stead. The Jackson Hole Rodeo and Teton County Fair have separate leases on the property with the town, both of which expire in 2026.
During the Save the Rodeo Grounds event, organizers played a five-minute video featuring interviews with many people who have benefitted from the rodeo, whether by learning courage, interacting with locals and tourists or cherishing the Western way of life.
“To me, the fairgrounds has just been a part of my life forever, and I’m not sure what I would do without it,” said Hailey Hardeman, a fourth-generation Jacksonite who is now on the University of Wyoming rodeo team.
Her point was echoed by Hal Johnson, a previous owner of the rodeo.
“Whether you’re a strong supporter or not, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s part of Jackson Hole.”
Speakers also included Maus; attorney Mark Jackowski, Teton County GOP chair and 4H educator Mary Martin, and another Save the Rodeo Grounds organizer, Rebecca Bextel.
Thinking about the values that make up a community, Martin considered the importance of “cultural capital.”
“That’s the sense of place,” she said. “That is what this fairgrounds represents to me and I think many of you and many of the 4-H kids that have grown up using this ground. It’s our way of knowing our history. Cultural capital is a recognition of our heritage.”
Martin said town and county elected leaders, who plan to officially start discussing the future of the fairgrounds in January, may not understand the importance of the place.
Responding to Martin’s point in a Q&A session, Town Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers, the one town or county elected official present, said that everybody’s voice is being heard.
She added that while she appreciates the fairgrounds, affordable housing is also an important factor in maintaining Jackson’s cultural capital.
“Personally, I want to see this place protected for working-class, blue-collar families,” she said. “What my fear is, if working people and retirees that grew up here don’t have anywhere to go, you will lose this cultural currency and capital that was spoken about. That’s the thing that I struggle with.”
But her point fell on skeptical ears.
Among the skeptics was Jackowski, who argued that her statement about everybody’s voice being heard contradicted a statement she sent to the News&Guide in June.
“Building housing at the current fairgrounds location seems to be the most responsible choice that’s in line with concentrating density in town,” Chambers wrote then. “It should be sensibly dense and very affordable, with as many deed restrictions as we can afford, while keeping in line with our Western character.”
Bextel, who previously told the News&Guide that the rodeo is one of Jackson’s last symbols of the “Old West,” said she would be trying to root out town and county officials who support moving the fairgrounds in the 2022 election.
“We’re willing to fight,” she said. “And the good news is a lot of these town councilors and county commissioners won’t be [in] office next time there’s an election, so we’ve got that on our side.”
A Town of Jackson statement released Dec. 21 said: “The Town is equally invested in supporting our shared western heritage and finding solutions for current challenges facing our entire community.
“The Town recognizes that determining the best use for these parcels of land is a community conversation and is committed to making ample time for the entire community to engage on this topic.”
Among the worries expressed by those who want to keep the fairgrounds where they are is that the town is trying to move the grounds without consulting its residents first.
The statement from the town continued: “No one at the town has any intention of changing the use of the fair or rodeo grounds without thorough planning, a broad look at all options and possibilities, and ensuring there are places, whether at the current location or elsewhere, for events like the Fair and Rodeo to continue to take place within our community.”
Bextel, though, wants the grounds to stay right where they are.
“We’re one of the last towns that has a downtown rodeo,” she said. “Most places have moved the rodeo grounds out of their town and then it just starts [its] demise. I think a lot of businesses would be impacted if we move the rodeo.”
“These rodeo grounds mean a lot to a lot of people,” Bextel added. “Maybe they don’t mean a lot to Jessica Sell Chambers or they don’t mean so much to somebody that just moved here last year from Seattle. But they mean a lot to a lot of people.”
For her part, Chambers said in a text message Tuesday that the future of the town depends on its ability to house workers and retirees. Without them, she said, “places like the fairgrounds will be exploited in ten years when this place is a paradise for investment bankers and commodified as a luxury notch in rich folks’ belts, a very beautiful place to cache billions of dollars, some of it even dark international money.”
That leaves one solution, she added.
“Affordable housing, and a lot of it, is the only thing that maybe saves that fate,” she said, adding that “2026 will be here before we know it, and it’s only fair of us to have an honest conversation about the fairgrounds’ future on that piece of land.”
Maus, who moved to Jackson a year and a half ago, said part of the appeal of moving to Jackson Hole was having a rodeo in town. It was a remnant of the Old West right in front of her eyes.
She said she supports affordable housing and that Jackson needs a lot more of it. She even said she would help play a role in the effort to create more affordable housing complexes, as long as they’re not at the fairgrounds.
“I think part of the quality of living in a town is having spaces like that, and not just having every part of a town be high-density housing,” she said. “You just need community spaces.”