The city of Philomath will receive $1.9 million through a late-session appropriations bill to go toward new grandstands and a lighting project for the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo. (Photo by Leon Neuschwander/Philomath News)

A year ago at this time, the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo’s board of directors, volunteers, fans and community members had to face questions about the rodeo arena’s future after a major section of the grandstands was lost in a late-night fire.

Before the rubble had even been cleared from the site, those involved started to come up with plans to make sure the popular rodeo would go on as planned less than two weeks later. Then the wheels started turning on the organization’s next move in an effort to rebuild.

This week in Salem, the city of Philomath and the Frolic & Rodeo received word that a $1.9 million appropriation had been included in a late-session House bill to help with the grandstands rebuild and a lighting upgrade.

Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis), who added Philomath to his district representation just this calendar year, worked the Frolic & Rodeo project into House Bill 5506. He pointed back to an April 1 town hall meeting held at City Hall.

“I asked about their priorities and so I went looking for a pathway to get that money,” Gomberg said via telephone interview Monday afternoon. “At about the same time, I was asked to coordinate this rural economic development group — this was both Democrats and Republicans working together on priorities for rural Oregon — and we actually put together a package of nine different bills dealing with everything from meat inspection to seafood to outdoor recreation. One of the parts of that package was a series of infrastructure improvements in communities in different parts of the state,” he added.

It’s that part of the appropriations package in which Gomberg pushed for the Philomath project.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is the ability to make a difference in people’s lives and sometimes that’s doing big things like securing a lot of money for a needed project,” Gomberg said.

Rep. David Gomberg (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The bill was scheduled to be heard Tuesday morning in the Capital Construction Subcommittee before advancing in the afternoon to the Ways and Means Committee, a group that Gomberg serves as vice chair. Then it will move on to the House and Senate floors.

Gomberg said he doesn’t anticipate any changes in the bill before its passage.

Frolic & Rodeo board member Chris Workman said the money moves up the timeline for the grandstands project.

“We’re not on a three- to five-year plan — now we’re back to the 12-month plan to get the rest of the funds secured so we’re ready to start with construction as early as after next year’s rodeo,” Workman said.

The use of the funding for something like the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo stands could be called unique, Workman said, based on the requirement that any project be directly connected to economic development.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in that House bill where you’re going to find grandstands and lighting. There are some water projects and sewer projects and incubator economic development type stuff,” said Workman, who is also Philomath’s city manager. “We were able to tell the story about the financial impact that these events have on the community and without the grandstands, we don’t have an event. It really is an economic driver and that was recognized by the state with this project.”

The Philomath Frolic & Rodeo had planned to upgrade its grandstands at some point in the future but those aspirations became a priority following the June 2022 fire.

Said Workman, “We hated to lose them that way but it did cause us to jump on it a little quicker and cause us to do something.”

Gomberg said there were several projects bundled as an economic development rural community package. For example, he also included on the list $1.5 million to the city of Monroe for a water, pre-filter and automated controls infrastructure package.

The new grandstands have been designed to increase seating capacity from the current 2,250 to about 4,100. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The $1.9 million influx won’t cover the entire grandstands project and more fundraising will follow.

“The idea is between now and the end of the year to try to get the rest of the money secured, which is about $500,000,” Workman said.

Workman said the city and the Frolic’s board worked well together.

“This $1.9 million was critical — nobody wants to be the first dollar in,” he said. “Now that we have some assurances that the $1.9 million will go toward the project, it changes the way that the Frolic board’s going to approach the rest of the fundraising that needs to be done.”

As Workman mentioned, the plan is to get through next month’s rodeo and the 2024 rodeo using the existing facility.

“As soon as the (2024) rodeo is complete, we’ll demo the existing stands, get the concrete pad poured and then be ready to start construction,” Workman said. “In the spring of 2025, it’ll be ready to go for the 2025 Frolic & Rodeo.”

The new grandstands have been designed to increase seating capacity from the current 2,250 to about 4,100 with more rise and space to provide a more comfortable experience. There will also be improved accessibility for disabled patrons.

As long as fans continue to turn out for the performances — and there’s nothing to suggest otherwise — the Frolic & Rodeo anticipates a better bottom line in the years to come.

“There will just be a lot more capacity so we won’t have to turn so many people away from the rodeo, more people will be able to come and more seats means more ticket sales which means more revenue,” Workman said.

In turn, more revenue will benefit the Frolic’s other rodeo grounds improvements and add to the funds donated back to the community through the support of various organizations, Workman said.

Gomberg said he’s never been to the Frolic & Rodeo — certainly understandable since the legislator only started representing Philomath in January. He does have a cowboy hat, however, so don’t be surprised if he’s spotted in the future.

“We’ll have a seat for him this year, absolutely,” Workman said. “His schedule is pretty busy and he has a lot of communities he’s taking care of but we’ll definitely have a seat for him.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.