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Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball by anthony jenkins lunch Illustration of Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball by anthony jenkins lunch Illustration of Calgary Stampede CEO Vern Kimball. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Lunch

Vern Kimball: Meet the Calgary Stampede’s designated driver Add to ...

The King of Calgary is in a dry spell. There is a wine list on the table, kegs behind the bar. But Vern Kimball, the man whose position atop the city’s annual spectacle of bulls and beers and buttered pancakes makes him among the most influential people in this self-declared “Heart of the New West,” is having none of it.

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“I’d love a water without ice,” he tells the server at Olives, a restaurant kitty-corner to the Calgary Stampede grounds. The booze flows hard and heavy around this city during Stampede, as investment bankers in cowboy boots and office workers in colourful shirts let loose for a 10-day party that sees drinks served from 7 a.m. breakfasts to midnight benders. But Mr. Kimball, the chief executive officer of an organization that he has served since 1986, is just setting out on his annual period of self-imposed temperance.

For a man charged with pulling off The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, an attraction that draws over a million people a year and takes a missionary zeal toward fostering ties to a diminishing cowboy heritage, this is no time to drink. Between now and July 15, he will be at his desk, coffee in hand, by 6 a.m. and, if things are going well, won’t return home until 10:30 p.m. If things go wrong – and it’s not uncommon for chuckwagon horses to die or people to be injured in midway accidents – the hours can be worse.

Best, then, to stay sharp, and away from the wine he normally favours.

“The days are long and there’s a lot of hospitality – a lot of things you need to be thinking about all the time. So you don’t want to be tired,” he says.

Mr. Kimball, 56, should know. He has not only run the Stampede since 2006, he is one of its longest-serving people and the man charged with a task far more difficult than ensuring the gates open on time and trash is collected. The Stampede connects Calgary with its past – and its people with each other – in a way no other institution can. But as that past grows more distant, Mr. Kimball faces questions about how exactly to keep Stampede both relevant and important.

Calgary’s cowboy connections, after all, are largely artifice today. Last year, 73,200 Albertans worked in agriculture, fewer than the 81,000 who walked through the gates of Stampede on opening day alone last year. Barely 2 per cent of the provincial gross domestic product flows from agriculture. Yet ranching and farming are at the heart of the Stampede – and the event’s centennial has brought that tension into focus, as it raises the question of what the next 100 years might look like.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is pretty sure a century from now, it will still have cowboys and horses – after all, without a rodeo, “what is Stampede?” he says in an interview. “It’s not Mardi Gras.”

But, he adds and this is nothing new in a city that is constantly changing shape “what the Stampede’s interesting challenge will be is how do you keep the idea of western culture and heritage relevant to a city that is increasingly made up of people whose ancestors didn’t live that heritage?”

For Mr. Kimball, it is among the most difficult of the many tasks he faces. His responsibilities already put most of the city’s hard-driving oilmen to shame. He is quite likely Calgary’s most practised logistician, a man who oversees a tremendously complex annual event that spans a world-class rodeo, large music festival – acts this year include Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, the Beach Boys, Awolnation, K’naan and a host of others – nightly grandstand show, enormous agricultural exhibit and one of the continent’s largest midways. He is an executive with a work force that numbers 300 full-time employees, 1,000 part-timers and 2,500 volunteer workers.

He is an assiduous entertainer, travelling to Mardi Gras and the Rose Bowl to learn from their parades, and conducting extensive polling in Alberta to cater his product to changing tastes. He is becoming an urban developer, with the Stampede part-way through a building boom that will see it house restaurants, shops, performing arts and additional agricultural facilities on its grounds, all intended to further establish its year-round presence.

But he is, above all, a curator of a heritage that is both disappearing and ascendant – a title he rejects as “pompous” before essentially acknowledging it.

“We perform a very important role in connecting people with an understanding of something that’s been lost,” he says. It’s not a new role: Even in the 1920s, the Stampede itself worked to persuade Calgarians to dress in western wear and decorate their shops.

The organization has long played an active role in shaping the culture of the city. Mr. Kimball approaches that part of his mission with an evangelical fervour that makes obvious his upbringing with a father who was a Baptist missionary and United Church preacher. Under his and the Stampede board’s direction, the organization has reached out to immigrant groups, inviting newly arrived families from Africa, for example, to the grounds.

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