The Belt Buckle Bonanza that concludes Sunday at the Extraco Events Center draws hundreds of youngsters from around the state to showcase their livestock, rub elbows with fellow competitors and hope for prizes.

The event has become a July Fourth tradition in Waco, which has been hosting the gathering of cattle, sheep and swine since 1998. It has a $2 million impact on the local economy, considering lodging, restaurant and fuel purchases, said J.D. Ewing, Extraco Events Center’s chief operations officer.

Trisha Pittman, 17, and her father, Owen Pittman, made the trip up from Corpus Christi to participate in Trisha’s fifth Belt Buckle Bonanza, which has the backing of the Texas Junior Livestock Association.

She and her father relaxed in the air-conditioned comfort of the rodeo arena, watching young steers and their school-aged trainers go through their paces under the gaze of judges and photographers.

“I’m here to show steers, heifers and pigs,” she said, adding she spends “seven to eight hours a day” tending to her animals.

Saving prize money

A question about fitting school and homework into her busy schedule prompted a smile from Trisha, who said she tries to complete her studies in the classroom, leaving time at home to pamper her Hereford, Limousin and “other-color” steers, female cows and Yorkshire hogs.

She is saving prize money to attend Texas Lutheran University, where she hopes to play volleyball. Winning the Grand Champion Steer award and $14,000 at a competition in Nueces County is her biggest honor to date.

“I attend shows all over the state, including the larger ones in Houston and Fort Worth, and the facilities here in Waco are probably the best I’ve seen in a city this size,” Trisha Pittman said.

Air-conditioned sites

Ewing said every July Fourth and every Thanksgiving weekend brings junior livestock enthusiasts to Waco, where they win cash, buckles and trophies. For the Belt Buckle Bonanza this year, visitors hauled 600 head of cattle, 600 hogs, 300 lambs and 200 goats into the city, putting to use the Extraco Coliseum, the exhibits building and the show pavilion, Ewing said.

“I can put them in three air-conditioned locales, which is important in July. Most places can’t do that,” he said.

The Extraco Events Center complex at Lake Air Drive and Bosque Boulevard hosts events on at least 40 weekends a year, including horse and livestock shows, the Circuit Finals Rodeo at year’s end and the Waco Gun Show next weekend.

On Saturday, the WWE SummerSlam Heatwave Tour invades the Extraco Events Center, bringing wrestling fans to Central Texas.

But through Sunday, the Belt Buckle Bonanza has taken center stage at Extraco, filling the parking lot with pickups and trailers.

LeeAnn Parker, 14, and her father, David, drove to Waco from their ranch near Lampasas. The teen has been raising and showing animals for seven years, but this marks her first exposure to the bonanza in Waco.

Dad and daughter had two lambs in tow as they walked toward a holding area at mid-afternoon Friday.

The fine-wool and medium-wool breeds were smartly groomed and wearing blue, form-fitting covers made of cotton and spandex to protect their coats from the elements.

“I have friends who told me I need to enter the competition in Waco,” LeeAnn Parker said.

She has six more sheep at home and spends about 90 minutes a day feeding, grooming and pampering the herd, she said.

Eventually, the sheep will land on the auction block, as they are raised for food production, said David Parker, who also runs cattle, horses, pygmy goats and emu on a ranch near the Colorado River.

A steer named Clown

Jack Woodford, 16, who hails from Crockett, rises at 5 a.m. daily to tackle chores associated with his family’s commercial cattle operation. For the Belt Buckle Bonanza challenge, he entered a multicolored, 15-month-old steer named Clown, which he “messes with just about every hour of the day.”

His mother, Trisha, a Baylor University graduate and unabashed fan of Baylor athletics, said she enjoys attending stock shows for the camaraderie and the opportunity to make new friends.

“I’m proud of Jack,” she said. “He’s been doing this since he was 8 years old, saving his winnings for college. I love Baylor, but I think he’s a potential Aggie. I savor every moment I have with him on these trips.”

Ewing, co-director of the Extraco Events Center, said yearly activities at the complex have a $47 million impact on the local economy, according to a study by Baylor University economist Tom Kelly.

That figure should grow to $60 million upon completion of a $34 million, taxpayer-approved expansion that will feature an 80,000-square-foot multipurpose building for sports tournaments and the addition of 300 horse barns and livestock stalls, Ewing said.

A 2 percent tax surcharge on hotel and motel stays and a 5 percent levy on car rentals will cover the cost of the improvements.

“It’s exciting,” Ewing said. “We’ll be hosting events we’ve never had.”

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