Norris-Penrose GM seeks to corral events

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Johnny Walker was hired last month as general manager of the Norris-Penrose Events Center. The center is traditionally known as the home of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, but Walker wants to host a range of new events this year, as well as renovate the facility.

Correction: In 2004, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation, with funding from the El Pomar Foundation, paid $536,010 to El Paso County for the Penrose Equestrian Center.

Robert Norris, a long-time supporter of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, agreed to purchase the naming rights to remodeled event center for $2 million.

Information in a Jan. 20 article, “Norris-Penrose GM seeks to corral events” was incorrect. The Colorado Springs Business Journal regrets the error.

Norris-Penrose Event Center’s new general manager Johnny Walker is kicking up the dirt in the worn-down 40-year old facility.

Walker, who took the helm in December, has come out of the chute with a five-year plan to pump up the 71-acres and 11 buildings that are home to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.

His goal is to not only give it some curb appeal, but buck up its bottom line by diversifying its venue opportunities.

“I have a vision,” he said. “I want this to be foremost in everyone’s mind, in their consciousness. I see it as being the Rose Bowl of Colorado Springs.”

Walker’s 2012 strategy is to spend money on an indoor arena addition and expand two outdoor arenas on the south side of the property. He’s betting that the move will land some big events. He’s already courting a Los Angeles-based equestrian producer that could bring in nine shows and six figures.

The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation, which owns the facility, is on board. Walker is talking with contractors and looking at financing now for the estimated $250,000 project he wants completed by May.

For the past five years — since the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation took over the rodeo and event center — it has been easing into the hearts and minds of the community, said foundation board president Rob Alexander.

“I see it as a community event center, I always have,” he said. “We still have a long battle. For the last five years, we’ve been running ragged to introduce it to a larger community.”

In recent years, there have been some false starts at the event center. In 2010, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation announced plans for a $1 million covered stage in an effort to attract music concerts.

Those plans didn’t work out, because the project would have required special concrete on the floor of the outdoor arena that could withstand being covered by tons of dirt for the rodeo. It was too expensive, Walker said.

Now, the event center is going after a different pay dirt — equestrian shows, BMX competitions and dog shows. But, all of those require more indoor space, especially during the winter months.

“We will have to throw a little money at it,” Alexander said. “But, we’ve planned very well.”

Walker has plans to build a 120-foot -by-120-foot addition that is to the indoor arena’s east side . He’ll need that space to land equestrian shows, which require space in winter months for riders to warm up their horses before competition.

“They want to bring the show here, but they have very specific requirements,” Walker said. “They don’t want to make the move unless we can accommodate all of their shows.”

The Norris-Penrose stadium was built in 1938 and moved from The Broadmoor to its location on Gold Camp Road in 1978.

Back then, it was managed by the city and El Paso County and was called the Penrose Equestrian Center. Then, in 2004, the county sold the whole lot to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation for a buck, yep, $1.

Robert Norris, a long-time supporter of the rodeo, purchased the name rights for $1 million. And, in 2006, the center got a new addition — the VIP and banquet room that is the main entrance to the outdoor arena. That was the last improvement, Walker said.

He estimates infrastructure improvements will cost about $250,000.

“We don’t want any surprises during events,” he said. “I want to get that all shorn up and know that it’s solid. Then, my next mission is the lipstick — all the show barns need to be painted.”

If Walker lands the equestrian shows and the $850 to $2,300 per day they bring, he’ll pump that money back into the facility.

“My mission here is to put this facility back together,” he said.

Walker already has proven he’s willing to make changes to get events into the event center, said Bubba Hayes, Pikes Peak BMX executive director. Hayes wanted to bring BMX competition and clinics to the Norris-Penrose indoor arena, but needed a lot of dirt. Walker made it happen.

“Other event centers didn’t want the dirt on their floors,” Hayes said.

The BMX group will build a 1,100 by 1,300 foot track with a 10-foot starting hill and multiple jumps inside the event center’s indoor arena — it should rival national competitive cycling tracks, Hayes said. The Southern Colorado BMX race, Jan. 20-29, will be the first state qualifier of the year and Hayes expects it to draw 300 to 400 riders from Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico.

“I’m hoping to sell out a few hotels too,” Hayes said.

Walker, a fourth-generation Pueblo rancher whose background is in real estate, said the event center is already booked for the rest of January and all of February and its dance card is filling fast.

“We’re not trying to compete with the Freedom Financial Center,” Walker said. “We’re more dirt oriented.”