On Tuesday morning, the Gilbert Rodeo Park arena ground where countless horses and bulls have galloped and bucked over the years was vacant, save for two dogs.
The canines were kings of the hill near Val Vista Drive and Ray Road, as construction vehicles and Gilbert Promotional Corporation workers and volunteers continued the slow process of removing the stands, stables and other structures. The last competitive event at the park was last weekend; the ground must be cleared by next week.
"We heard that a lot over the weekend, how sad it was," Kevin Whitlock, GPC vice president, said as he worked on Tuesday. "There's something magical about this place. We have people come through here that perform at every rodeo in the country, and they say that this is one of their favorite places to come to."
Nine horses remained stabled at the park, tended to by 17-year-old Roper Kiesner, whose family travels to perform at rodeo events year-round. The horses are typically stationed at the park for a month during the winter phase of the tour, but they will soon be moved to a facility in Casa Grande.
"This park was centrally located for us and has everything we need," Kiesner said. "I'm told the place in Casa Grande is nice, but it would be better to stay here. The rodeos here are always fun and have a hometown feel."
The park has held two of the more popular events during the annual Gilbert Days, the rodeo and carnival.
Citing necessary water-retention remediation costs of as much as $4 million, Gilbert opted not to renew the lease in November. Maricopa County had leased the 47-acre former landfill site to the town since 1982; the agreement expires on Feb. 15.
Bittersweetness was the prevailing emotion for GPC personnel on Sunday, as a Queen Creek Junior Rodeo event wrapped up. Throw in the fact that many participants and spectators left hurriedly to be home in time for the Super Bowl, and it was not the most worthy of farewells.
The diminished facility will host a horse show on Saturday. Until then, the GPC is working almost around the clock to clear the land.
"We were here until midnight (on Monday)," Whitlock said. "I'm here a lot more than usual, and I typically spend 40 hours a week here. After this place is gone, I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my time. But we (the GPC) are moving forward as if we are going to do this again somewhere else."
There had been fear among the GPC, the non-profit organization that operated the Rodeo Park and stages Gilbert Days, that rodeo events in the town could be in peril. However, Whitlock said, cautious optimism has taken over.
Facilities from Apache Junction to Queen Creek have offered the GPC a home for events. But Whitlock said that, during discussions between GPC and town officials, such Gilbert sites as downtown and the Heritage District have been mentioned as options for at least this year's Gilbert Days rodeo in November.
"I don't know if we could get the carnival and the rodeo in one place," Whitlock said. "Things would have to be spread out a little bit. ...
"You have rodeo events in the Heritage District, a lot of people who come will stick around a while to eat and shop. It could change the dynamics of the district."
Town spokeswoman Beth Lucas said on Tuesday that the Council has moved forward on a parks master plan, but land will not be designated for use until all evaluations are made.
"We're very appreciative of the GPC," Gilbert Mayor John Lewis told the Tribune last month. "I wish there could be a quick solution. There will be Council involvement, but we may need some progress on a parks master plan. Some Council members want to help, but they are adding that until we get a big-picture view, it's hard to say what pieces of land are available."
The rodeo will likely find a new home, but Whitlock said the atmosphere of the Gilbert Rodeo Park will be tough to replicate.
"Our rodeo is different," Whitlock said. "You come for Gilbert Days. It's 10 bucks to get in, a buck for a soda, two bucks for a beer. And we allow local riders to compete, which a lot of other rodeos don't do. It's down-home, no one makes the big bucks; we're just looking for the money to operate the GPC and the events for the rest of the year.
"It's not like any other sporting event - because it's not supposed to be."