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As she has done for the last 17 years, Charlotte Spinks Browning soon will load up her long, expensive aluminum horse trailer and make the trek to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But this time it will be different. When she pulls up to the Reliant Astrodome complex, she'll be escorting only two of her prized horses, rather than the ten she traditionally takes to the big show.
Like some other exhibitors, the internationally regarded Tomball quarter-horse trainer and riding instructor has reined in her participation because of the parking problems looming for the 2001 event.
Browning and other animal owners will have to park their trailers on an HLSR remote lot at Reed Road and Texas 288, more than two miles from the Dome. While there have been warnings and widespread publicity about parking shortages for HLSR spectators, event insiders say some severe impacts will be felt by the actual participants, from performers to exhibitors.
Fans have been advised that the only access will be by buses shuttling spectators from ten park-and-ride locations. Upon arriving, they will quickly see the reason for the transportation woes: the new pro football stadium being built adjacent to the Astrodome, on land once reserved for rodeo parking.
At the Reed Road lot, HLSR is offering contestants three fenced-in acres of parking, 24-hour security, showers and a dump station. Animals can be kept there at the owners' risk, although there will be no stalls available. A fleet of buses will shuttle rodeo participants and exhibitors to the Dome complex.
Rodeo officials say some congestion will be alleviated by the elimination of the Saturday matinees, although they concede that parking problems have reduced the number of exhibitors by as much as 8 percent. And they admit that on-site spectator parking will be a thing of the past. John Sykes, assistant HLSR general manager, says, "We've learned a lot from this 2001 show, and parking in 2002 could be even tighter. I know there won't be any more parking" than will be provided this year.
Some longtime show participants dispute that assessment, saying they've been told informally that parking eventually will be expanded -- at the expense of demolishing the Astrodome and Astrohall. In a likely effort to keep a positive spin on the sweeping changes under way in the name of pro football, officials have avoided mention of the obvious: that the beloved Dome complex will be torn down eventually.
"If you go into the rodeo offices, you can see the architectural drawings up on easels," notes cutting-horse show announcer Doug Schulze. "The Dome isn't there."
Steve Fleming, spokesman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, plays down the problems for the rodeo contestants. He says the demand by sports teams for new venues has caused congestion at other stops on the rodeo circuit. "Denver is going through the same thing," he says. "I haven't heard any complaints yet" from PRCA members. Cowboys contacted by the Houston Press declined to comment.
Likewise, some exhibitors say they are muzzling their criticism out of concern about retribution from event operators. Browning says that in nearly two decades of involvement, she's "never whined, never complained." This year she's had warnings from friends to keep quiet. "They say, 'This is the way you make your living. Be careful.' "
Her Tomball spread reflects a serious equine investment, one that has attracted clientele from Houston's elite and as far away as Australia.
In previous years at the rodeo, exhibitors had special roped-off spaces to park their trailers adjacent to the AstroArena, the venue for horse shows. The animals had reserved stalls inside the facility. Browning kept some of her horses there for about ten days; now she says she won't risk having them there for more than four.
Parking problems are compounded because the trailers and vehicles are used to store the extensive gear and tack -- saddles, bridles, bits, blankets and other necessities. This year they will have to drive them to the remote lot, then rely on the buses to get back to their horses.
"We parked outside and operated from our trailers," says one longtime Fort Bend County trainer. "This year I can't. It is going to be a bitch."
The trainer, who asked that her name not be used, says she too is reducing the number of animals to be exhibited because of the parking concerns. "It is going to be a pain in the booty." The trainer says HLSR relegates horse shows to secondary status. "I don't think that they do it to be ugly, but they do it. The livestock show isn't about horse shows. It's about people getting out there and having a ball."
While the trainer says participation in the show is necessary to maintain her business profile, Browning says some exhibitors are avoiding the event entirely. "To park your trailer two miles down the road, this will be really inconvenient. I know a lot of people not going this year because of that."
She says organizers must appreciate the important role of the animal shows and exhibitions. "I almost didn't come back this year," Browning says. "They need to remember why the people come."