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Pandemic changes Wyoming summer entertainment landscape
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Pandemic changes Wyoming summer entertainment landscape

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For the past 123 summers, Cheyenne Frontier Days has hosted a rodeo and festival that routinely attracts major names in the music industry for its Frontier Nights concert series.

But like many other Wyoming events, Frontier Days is contending with uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The organizers plan to make a decision the first week of June, and cancellation isn’t off the table, CEO Tom Hirsig said.

Several of Wyoming’s major summer events have been cancelled, such as the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, which is billed as the “granddaddy of bluegrass festivals in the northern Rockies.” Also axed this year are Kemmerer’s Oyster Ridge Music Festival, known as Wyoming largest free festival, and the Grand Teton Music Festival, which has brought in world-renowned classical musicians to Jackson.

Frontier Days isn’t the only event still up in the air. Some events like the Nicolaysen Art Museum’s Nic Fest in Casper and Longmire Days in Buffalo have been postponed to later dates.

“Through all the things that have happened in the past, there’s always been a Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Hirsig said. “So that’s sad to think that that could be a possibility. But, you know, we all know what’s going on right now. And there is nothing assured about anything, especially in the event business.”

Uncertainty meets economic struggle

Even in the best-case scenario, Cheyenne Frontier Days leaders expect to feel a major financial strain beyond even this year. The $2 million already spent on this year’s event won’t be recouped if it’s cancelled, Hirsig said.

“If we go forward with our event, I would be excited if we would get 65 percent of what we budgeted for in ticket sales,” he said.

The pandemic’s impact has extended into next year. Frontier Days officials haven’t put out offers for 2021 music acts because of the uncertainty.

“The thing that people need to keep in mind is not only does it hurt the economic impact of the community and the state to not have events, but these events, it’s not like we cancel and we just start over next year” Hirsig said.

The board of directors had budgeted and planned for emergencies. But Cheyenne Frontier Days now faces potential cancellation, Hirsig said.

“No one could have ever planned for what this means financially for not only us, but every business in Wyoming,” he said.

Some events have faced fewer challenges, like the Pinedale Fine Arts Council’s Soundcheck Summer Music Series, which normally draws about 1,000 for each outdoor show. Sublette County has had only one confirmed and two probable COVID-19 cases, and the three are listed as recovered.

The council is working with the county health officer to plan social distancing and other safety measures for the concerts set to start in July, executive director Kari DeWitt said. The series usually brings about $220,000 to the community from hotels, food and other spending. The big question is whether they’ll see that that economic return this year, DeWitt said.

Meanwhile, Nic Fest in Casper has been postponed to July 24-26. The bands and vendors have rebooked with an understanding that the plan could always change, Nicolaysen Art Museum executive director Ann Ruble said.

“Our hope is we can put on an event that is both safe for our employees and for the community,” she said. “But if we can’t do that, we won’t have an event.”

The event typically draws 10,000 people over the weekend with vendors from around the country. The organizers three years ago moved the dates to coincide with the College National Finals Rodeo, which has been cancelled this year.

Questions remain over whether businesses will continue to sponsor events, people will have money to buy art and how many will attend events like Nic Fest, Ruble said.

“In my 30 years of doing for profit and nonprofit work, I’ve never experienced anything like this. I lived on the Gulf Coast; I went through a hurricane; I could tell you what to do before and after hurricane,” Ruble said. “I worked in industrial settings. I knew what to do before and after an accident. But pandemic is a whole new thing to me. I have no way of knowing what the end date is for any of us.”

Cancellations, postponements and alternatives

Oyster Ridge Music Festival is among the summer’s cancelled events. The festival in Kemmerer goes back more than 25 years and hosts big names in bluegrass.

“Public safety is the most important thing,” the festival’s president, Thomas Lively said. “And, you know, right now there’s just so much unknown.”

He doesn’t expect the nonprofit to suffer financially from the cancellation, and nearly all the bands have rebooked for 2021. The biggest concern is how the overall economy might impact the festival, which relies on its supporters. If the festival had to be cancelled after they’d already invested in merchandise, it would jeopardize the future of the festival itself.

“So we just figured it was best to hang this one up and live to fight another day next year,” Lively said.

Among other cancelled festivals are Grand Targhee Resort’s Targhee Fest and Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, which last year brought in such acts as Los Lobos, Drive-By Truckers, Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass, according to the website. The Lander Live series, which has brought major national headliners, has also been cancelled, according to its website.

The Beartrap Summer Festival announced its cancellation Tuesday. The festival on Casper Mountain has featured local acts to national headliners including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Wynonna Judd and Skid Row. This year’s planned headliners — Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers and the Charlie Daniels Band — are slated for next year’s festival, according to the announcement.

Longmire Days is postponed from July to Aug. 13-16, although the organizers plan to make the final decision in July about the annual Buffalo celebration.

Some organizers of cancelled events plan to offer alternatives. The WYOmericana Caravan Tour’s traveling showcase of Wyoming musicians through the Rocky Mountain region is cancelled, and the organizers plan some theater dates for September and October with the hope of rescheduling what’s realistic from the tour, according to a press release from the founders.

The Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson has cancelled its summer season. The classical music festival now plans to feature a smaller group of musicians to record and film three concerts in early August if safety permits, according to its the website. The concerts are set to stream online Aug. 21-23 and be televised in the fall through BBC Music Magazine and Wyoming PBS.

The What Festival and events through September at the Gryphon Theater have been cancelled, director of the festival, manager of the Gryphon and BendeRuble sound owner Adam Bender said. He’s working with the venue team on plans for two drive-in concerts featuring music acts connected with What Fest at a location to be decided. The audience could watch on large screens and tune in on shortwave FM broadcast from their cars or socially distance outside.

“People are going to be starving for something to do outdoors,” Bender said. “So I think it’s our responsibility with the resources that we have, and you know, that I have, to do something for people.”

Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner

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