Scottsdale, the self-proclaimed "West’s Most Western Town," will lose more of its claim to that name next year when the national Festival of the West leaves the city.
The Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse, which has hosted the festival 11 times, will only remain in its north Scottsdale digs, 23023 N. Scottsdale Road, through October.
The new Rawhide, a miniature town devoted to Old West lore, is being constructed on the Gila River Indian Community and is scheduled to open on Dec. 1.
The festival, a celebration of western history and traditions, will join Rawhide there when the four-day event opens in March, said Mary Brown, its founder and organizer. The event features a trade show, country music acts and a Western film festival.
Thousands of visitors drawn to the high-profile event during its 15-year run in Scottsdale will now be heading to another area. But the city loses more than a bit of revenue.
The festival symbolizes the Old West heritage Scottsdale emphasized more than half a century ago in its effort to attract tourists. And that heritage is fading.
Scottsdale is rapidly "changing its identity," said Susie Wheeler, an equestrian enthusiast and real estate agent who specializes in horse properties. "If they give up all this they’ll be like any other city. There’ll be nothing that separates us from Phoenix, except we’ll be a suburb."
After Rawhide announced late last year that it would move to Interstate 10 and Wild Horse Pass Road, Scottsdale attempted to keep the festival, offering WestWorld as an alternative. The festival was held at the equestrian center from 2001 to 2004, before returning to Rawhide this year, Brown said.
"We would have loved to have made it work, but Rawhide is just such a natural home for us and we just couldn’t make it work any other way," Brown said.
Scottsdale could no longer offer the right fit, she said.
Even in 15 years, the city has changed. Its downtown — once primarily known for stores with Indian jewelry and other Western items — is becoming far more urban with a vibrant bar and dining scene and multiple high-rise condominium projects now under construction.
In north Scottsdale, subdivisions have populated the once empty desert. The land that Rawhide sits atop is also slated to become a housing development.
Wheeler argues that Scottsdale allowed too much density in its northern end and is doing too little to protect the equestrian lifestyle, in which horse owners feel safe riding around the city — even in its southern reaches.
"People did own horses here, they did have dude ranches, they did ride into downtown," she said. "And it might have been a slogan for tourism, but horses were a real factor in the city of Scottsdale."
Others contend that the "Western town" slogan never accurately described the city and certainly does not now.
However, Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce president Rick Kidder says both sides are correct. "The marketing ploy of ‘West’s most Western Town’ was one that truly had some resonance, even if it was artificial," he said.
Once the slogan was established in 1951, Kidder said it became woven into Scottsdale’s traditions. Thus, events like the Parada del Sol and the Festival of the West took hold and flourished.
"Whether the heritage that was Western was manufactured or not, it became very much a part of the fabric of this community," he said.
But Scottsdale’s population grew and the development surrounding Rawhide has curbed what could be done there.
"We have a couple of fun things up our sleeves that we’re working on that . . . we weren’t able to accomplish," Brown said, because of what she described as the area’s "urbanization."
She declined to discuss the new features.
Rawhide, too, is taking advantage of its new location, said Victor Ostrow, the center’s general manager. The steakhouse, now located at center of Rawhide, will be at its front opening to encourage a late night clientele that never materialized from the subdivisions in north Scottsdale.
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