DARRINGTON — Newly repaired bleachers gleam under a coat of snow-white paint.
A new metal fence surrounds the chocolate-brown earth of the rodeo arena.
The announcer’s booth sports unblemished brown siding. And the bucking chutes, where contestants will begin their jarring rides atop broncs or bulls, have been painted an eye-catching fire-engine red.
More upgrades, largely unseen, were made to lighting and electrical systems.
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And this weekend, it will be up to the general public to show whether all this work at the Darrington Rodeo Grounds was worth the effort.
“A lot of people said they are coming,” said Margie Bates, supervising the work. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The Darrington Timberbowl Rodeo, Saturday and Sunday, marks the first big test of a state-aided campaign to help mitigate financial losses from the March 22 mudslide that took 43 lives, buried a neighborhood and severed a state highway.
“There’s never an end to the possibilities in the Stillaguamish Valley,” promises a TV commercial that hit the air this week (and can be viewed on YouTube), showing delighted visitors hiking, camping, cycling, climbing and river rafting.
This week, the ads have carried a tagline about the rodeo, but that will change through the summer in the run-up to three other multiday events: the Arlington Fly-In (July 10-12), the Darrington Bluegrass Festival (July 18-20) and the Summer Meltdown music festival (Aug. 7-10).
Although the ad campaign ends in mid-August, it’s hoped that the area’s exposure also will benefit the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe’s Celebration of Generations Powwow, Aug. 22-24.
The media campaign was made possible when Gov. Jay Inslee last month approved the Snohomish County Office of Economic Development’s request for $150,000 from a state reserve.
Mount Vernon-based BrandQuery was tapped to produce the marketing effort. Its president, Jacque Beamer, drew on ideas valley residents aired at a public meeting in Darrington, and she tapped Oak Rankin, nephew of Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, to guide her production crew to choice locations.
“There’s a real strong community spirit there. The people want the area to do well, and they make it easy to want to help,” said Beamer, who said she was struck by the valley’s spectacular views and the proximity of outdoor-recreation possibilities.
An additional $25,000 in state aid, as well as a $5,000 grant from Coastal Community Bank, was given to the nonprofit Darrington Horse Owners Association, which owns the rodeo grounds and organizes this weekend’s event.
Margie Bates, who heads the horse-owners group with her husband, Nick, said the improvements, some dealing with basic safety issues, have been long-needed. Although the rodeo dates back to the early 1970s at that site, it was not held last year, in part because the group didn’t have enough money to make the site safe and secure, she said.
Labor for the current work has been provided through Snohomish County’s Workforce Development Council, with more than two dozen workers on site at the peak of activity.
“It’s been a godsend,” Bates said. “The county and the state have done nothing but help us, and we are very grateful.”
To give back to the community, the rodeo is holding a 6 p.m. Saturday concert at the adjacent Darrington Bluegrass Music Park, about three miles west of Darrington on Highway 530. Proceeds will be split between the Cascade Senior Center and the Darrington Recreation & Education Foundation.
In the weeks after the slide, members of the horse-owners group helped care for horses whose owners lost their homes in the slide. Some of the animals stayed at the site into May.
Bates said the rodeo usually draws between 1,200 and 1,500 a day, though the facility could hold twice that number.
In addition to bull riding, saddle-bronc riding and barrel racing, some offerings are just for kids: mutton busting (riding sheep) and stick-pony races.
The rodeo’s chance of success got an important boost May 31 when the state opened — much earlier than expected — a single lane of Highway 530 through the slide zone near Oso.
Traffic is still led through the area by pilot cars, one direction at a time, but the process is faster and smoother than before, when drivers were led just once an hour each direction along a steep and narrow bypass route around the slide’s debris field.
That opening came just in time for Darrington Day, May 31, a 3-year-old celebration of local arts, music, heritage and civic accomplishment. Martha Rasmussen, an organizer of that event, said she didn’t count the visitors that day, but it was clearly more than in the previous two years and could have approached 1,000.
That event, sponsored by the Darrington Area Business Association, was too early to benefit from the state-funded marketing campaign.
Rasmussen said valley residents won’t forget the fact that the mudslide took away people who each, in their own way, added to the character of the area.
“There’s still a lot of recovery to do,” she said. “But I’m enjoying the sense of optimism creeping over the valley right now.”
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222