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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Days of '47 Rodeo broke in its new 10,000-seat home Wednesday with praise from Utah political and religious leaders.
The competition kicked off with a ceremony celebrating its just-completed $17 million arena built with public money and a $3 million gift from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About 4,500 people, many of them families with youngsters, watched from the stands in the Utah State Fairpark on the breezy summer evening.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir opened the celebration, singing several pieces including "This Land is Your Land." The dedication included the reading of a poem commissioned from cowboy poet Wadi Mitchell and a prayer from Elder M. Russell Ballard, of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who said some version of the rodeo has been a tradition in Utah since 1857, and was an important piece of pioneer life.
"This arena sprang out of the ground in remarkably short time," Elder Ballard noted.
Officials say it took about eight months to build.
"We've come home," said Kem Gardner, chairman of the Days of '47 executive committee. Other leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski also were on the dais.
Herbert said the repurposed arena would be an economic boost for the city's west side, calling it "a major investment and a major step forward for the future of the Utah State Fairpark."
The rodeo had been held at the Vivint Smart Home Arena.
State lawmakers approved the project after debating the future of the Fairpark for years. Legislators and Herbert at one point considered razing the lot altogether.
But several public and private entities ponied up for the rodeo plan. The state contributed $10 million and Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County pitched in $3 million.
That's in addition to the gift from the LDS Church, which has said it provided the donation in order to "express our appreciation for your leadership on the project to upgrade the fairgrounds and feel confident that it would be a marvelous blessing for the people of the state of Utah," according to a letter from the church's Presiding Bishopric.
Aside from the Days of '47 Rodeo, the arena is expected to also host motorsports events, concerts, demolition derbies, equestrian events and other rodeos. Legislators at an unveiling of the park last week said they believed it would bring agricultural resources from rural areas to Utah's capital city.
Activities at the Cowboy Games and Rodeo at the State Fairgrounds start at 1 p.m. daily through Monday and include mutton busting, a petting zoo, experiential pioneer and mountain men camps, a Native American village, mechanical bulls, Western shopping, carnival rides, live country music and dancing.
The Gold Medal rodeo format includes four days of qualifying rounds where current PRCA world champions compete alongside some rising stars, including Utah natives.
The competition comes to a head with the Gold Medal Round Monday, which will showcase the top eight athletes in each of seven events as they compete for the $1 million purse.
Sylvia Schultz, 8, who arrived from Hooper with her dad Nate Schultz, said she was looking forward to seeing steer wrestling. The pair said they were lifelong Utahns but had never seen the Days of '47 rodeo. Nate Schultz was happy to see the arena was built in less than a year.
"I think it's good to see them make a decision and get going on it so quickly," he said. " It's kind of fun to be here for opening night."