Pam Kohler quit her regular day job this year to follow the dreams of her husband, Mark, in the world of western art. He had left the nine-to-five grind three years ago to devote himself full-time to finely crafted canvas renditions of the Old West.
They follow the major rodeo circuit to sell his paintings for as much as $3,000 each (signed prints go for as little as $250). While the highlight of life on the road may be the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the Kohlers count the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo among their top stops on the trail.
Pam arrived from their Austin home to link up with Mark on the third day of the Houston show. Amid the rows of vendors in the old AstroArena and Astrohall, she found her husband's booth -- and not much more.
"I just got here today [last Thursday] and said, 'Where are all the people?' " Pam reported. "And they said, 'You are the people.' "
She's hardly the only one asking that question, as rodeo officials wrestle with transportation woes and retailers wonder if the crowds -- especially the daytime foot traffic -- will materialize so they can at least cover the costs of their rental space.
The revolutions per minute of public relations spin may be running at dizzying speed as officials attempt to put this year's early disappointing attendance figures in a good light.
Thus far, at least, the transformation of Astrodomain into Reliant Park has made Houston's premier event only a shadow of past sellout crowds and register-ringing retail sales.
Rodeo officials say the head count this year is off by only as little as 5 percent. But ticket brokers such as Ticket Center manager Gary McBride say that is a serious exaggeration of just how few people are really going through the turnstiles.
"Our sales are off 25 percent or possibly a little bit higher," he says. McBride attributes the fall-off to "the big scare of parking" and a star performance lineup that is "a little weak."
His firm buys tickets from season ticket holders for resale. "This year we had more people trying to sell us tickets, and this year we had to turn down tickets we would never have turned down before."
Rodeo statistics show about the same paid admissions for the first Tuesday and Wednesday this year, as compared to those days last year. The first Thursday, however, showed about a 10,000-ticket drop from the initial Thursday of 2000.
Rodeo veterans say the decline is most dramatic in daytime hours. On weekdays the complex is largely deserted by the public, with most of the traffic limited to livestock exhibitors shuttling animals to and from the building arenas. Virtually all of the east wing of the old Astrohall, which used to be set aside for showing livestock, has been allotted this year to commercial booths and the children's "Agventure" exhibit area, which has been moved indoors.
Everyone agrees on the reason for the slip in daytime attendance during the week: the shuttle-only access. Construction of the new football stadium has consumed the adjacent parking lots of years past.
But the blame for the decline in daytime interest is more involved. The rodeo reportedly blames some of it on Metro -- and Metro says the rodeo is calling all the shots.
Weeks before the rodeo gates opened, Houstonians heard ample advice on how to beat the parking woes for the big event. Rodeo officials and Metro teamed up to operate remote parking lots in the area. Fans only had to find any of the ten designated lots, and a fleet of buses -- some 400 of them -- would whisk them to the door of the old Dome.
This writer was one of those who was ready to closely follow that advice. The remote lot at Delmar Stadium, near U.S. 290 and Loop 610, was the most convenient. A 5:15 p.m. interview had been scheduled on the floor of the Dome. The arrival at the Delmar lot was nearly two full hours before that appointment.
Rodeo officials had been right about the convenience -- there weren't more than 20 or 30 people waiting in line at Delmar for the Dome shuttle at that time. Then came the simple question to confirm the travel plan:
When was the bus coming?
Five p.m., one of the waiting strangers said.
Five o'clock? Nearly two hours later?
As it turns out, only two of the ten Metro rodeo park-and-ride lots make runs to the Dome before 5 p.m. Those are at Enron Field downtown and Reed Road, south of the rodeo complex. After a scramble to drive to the Reed Road location, there was little wait before a well-appointed cruiser pulled up.
More than 40 passengers boarded the bus, under contract to Metro, and settled into softly cushioned seats. And a full-blast sauna.
"Hey -- turn the heater off!" one man yelled at the driver minutes later.
"I can't -- the switch is stuck."
Such exchanges would be common on the ten-minute ride to the rodeo complex. Then the driver missed the bus entrance on Fannin, so the roasting captives could only watch as he was forced to circle the entire complex again. "Hey -- people are passing out back here!" a rider yelled, getting no response. The soaked human cargo stepped off the bus minutes later.
"From time to time, there are equipment malfunctions," explained Metro spokeswoman Julie Gilbert.
She also quickly doused prevalent reports circulating among the livestock show merchants: that rodeo officials attributed the lack of daytime attendance to Metro, because it did not want to open more lots to rodeo fans during workdays, when they were being used by regular commuters.
While the big-name entertainers have evening performances during the week, the livestock show and rodeo opens at 9 a.m. every morning. Most of the regular attractions of the event -- educational presentations, exhibits, cowboy autographs, the petting zoo and other features, including the retail booths -- are available to the public during the daytime.
One rodeo vendor, whose booth is near the Kohlers', says of rodeo officials, "They told us that they can't use the park-and-rides until the people get off work; you can't sell anything to people if they aren't here."
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Metro officials say not to blame them. They are only following orders.
"We are operating the service that the rodeo asked us to do, and they asked us to start it at these times," Gilbert explains. "Six of the lots we are using aren't even Metro lots."
Gilbert says some rodeo fans still show up at the evening lots during the weekday, although the agency has tried to inform the public of the scheduling.
"Our phone number had 6,000 calls on Saturday," prior to opening day, she said. "We will be happy to make any adjustments that the rodeo requests that we make."