Health restrictions uncertainty spurs Ponoka Stampede organizers to postpone event

The board of the Ponoka Stampede has decided to postpone this year's event and is eyeing dates later this summer.

Annual event has been postponed, but could still happen in 2021.

Bruce Harbin, president of the Ponoka Stampede, said the board made the difficult decision to postpone this year's event. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

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The Ponoka Stampede will not be happening as planned in early July though organizers are hopeful it may happen this summer.

The annual event attracts 35,000 tourists to the town of 7,000 for the July 1 weekend. It was cancelled last summer due to COVID-19, and may not take place this summer either. 

"Our whole board of directors is disappointed that we're at this place again a year later," said Bruce Harbin, president of the Ponoka Stampede. 

According to Harbin, it would not be possible to have a worthy Ponoka Stampede event under Alberta's current health restrictions.

Harbins said officials with Alberta Health Services have worked closely with the board to advise it on public health measures and requirements.

According to Harbin, AHS was very helpful, but in the end, the board felt that a stampede under the current restrictions "wasn't going to provide a show that we thought fans could enjoy." 

Rahul and Rashmi Mendhiratta moved from Edmonton to buy the Hitchin' Post restaurant near the stampede grounds. The couple worry about a summer without the event. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

But the board hasn't given up on summer 2021 just yet. Unlike K-Days, the Ponoka Stampede isn't cancelled, just postponed. The event is on pause until Alberta's vaccinations go up and hospitalizations go down. 

"Should those numbers start to line up and the restrictions be gone, then, hopefully, that'll provide us an unrestricted date that we could go forward on in the very short term future," he said, noting that a stampede in August is a possibility. 

The Calgary Stampede is planned to go ahead starting on July 9, though some of its events have been cancelled this year. 

Under the province's reopening plan, almost all health restrictions would be lifted in early July if 70 per cent of the eligible population receives at least one dose of vaccine.

'It should go on' 

At the Hitchin' Post Bar and Grill in Ponoka, Rahul and Rashmi Mendhiratta are worried. 

The duo moved their family from Edmonton to Ponoka after purchasing the Hitchin' Post in March, specifically due to its proximity to the stampede grounds.

Rahul was previously an executive chef, and while he's happy to see his new neighbours enjoying his meals on the patio or picking up take-out, he is very worried about summer without a stampede. 

"You know in a small town, this is a big deal for us," he said. "In the past, this place was packed June and July, there was no seating left for people, they had to wait half an hour to an hour." 

He's keen to see the Stampede return in 2022, but wants to see more provincial support for the hospitality industry before then. 

"We are not losing our hope," he said. 

His wife agrees. She's not giving up on her new community of Ponoka or its Stampede. 

"I am crossing my fingers," she said. "It should go on." 

'We are upset' 

Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett said he understands the disappointment felt by the stampede board and the many businesses that rely on the annual event for revenue. 

"It's a bad thing for the community that we're not having people come for the great summer tradition of the Ponoka Stampede. It brings in people from all over Alberta, Canada and the world," said Bonnett. 

"We are upset, but at the same time, we understand the things that are going on." 

Bonnet hopes that Albertans will still come to Ponoka this summer, and enjoy the trail system and other outdoor activities.