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Reality less than the hype


Some observers interviewed noted the high percentage of locals in race-day crowds. No official crowd count has been released.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

The jumbo TV screen has left Buckley Park, the vendor tents at Fort Lewis College have been taken down and the bicycle racers long since have sped off to their next destination.

After months of planning and a whirlwind week leading up to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge’s start in Durango, the city finally has a chance to catch its breath and reflect on the event that was expected to bring streams of crowds and unprecedented worldwide recognition.

Looking back at Monday’s start of the Pro Challenge, now in its second year, reflections and assessments are mixed. Many business owners and spectators agreed the crowds were not as big as the city estimated, and many said they did not see the week-long supercharge to business that race organizers were touting. Even so, local residents emphasized their appreciation for the event and held out optimism that race-related media exposure will benefit Durango in the long run.

“This was an opportunity to introduce Durango to the world stage, and I felt like that was a success,” said Anne Klein, spokeswoman for the Durango Area Tourism Office.

Even though the city may not have seen as big of a turnout of fans as it expected, “Durango put its best foot forward,” said Michael Hurst, owner of Carver Brewing Co..

“There’s a long-term benefit that we are going to see for years to come,” he said.

So far, the tourism office has clipped 299 Pro Challenge-related news articles that mention Durango, which have generated an estimated 189 million media impressions, a term that measures how many people may have seen those articles, Klein said. The numbers don’t include international, broadcast or social media exposure.

“We have surpassed our media goal,” she said.

Crowd counting

While downtown was buzzing in the days leading up to Monday’s Pro Challenge start, businesses and locals said it seemed the crowds were sparser than the 20,000 to 25,000 people the city predicted.

City of Durango officials and race organizers couldn’t provide crowd estimates as of Friday afternoon. Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the city manager, said the city is compiling information from photos, videos and counters and wants to release data about the race in a final report that will not be ready until mid-September.

A few other numbers provide some sense of the crowds.

Shawn Hunter, co-chairman and CEO of the Challenge, drove in one of the lead cars ahead of the riders and estimated that the entire first day of the race, including the start in Durango and finish in Telluride, attracted more people than last year’s Day 1 time trial in Colorado Springs, when crowds were estimated at 40,000 to 50,000.

Fort Lewis College spokesman Mitch Davis estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people visited the college during the weekend.

“We would have liked to have had 10,000 people, but maybe that was a little unrealistic,” he said. The college saw a 43 percent spike in traffic on its website over the race weekend, he said.

Durangoans also said that local spectators were a bigger part of the crowd than they anticipated.

The La Plata County Economic Development Alliance saw more than 300 visitors at its booth during the weekend, and of those, about 80 percent were local residents, said Roger Zalneraitis, the alliance’s executive director. When the organization had a booth at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, about two thirds of people were from out of town, he said.

Hotel occupancy

While a few downtown hotels were filled to capacity the weekend before the bicycle race, other hotel managers around Durango cited occupancy rates of 50 to 80 percent. The Ramada Limited and Durango Travelodge, both on north Main Avenue, were about half full during the weekend, said Melissa Morris, hotel supervisor for both hotels. Meanwhile, both hotels already are sold out for Labor Day weekend, when two motorcycle rallies will be in the area.

Mary Kay Dobson, an employee at Best Western Rio Grande Inn, said some previous guests commented that they were staying as far away from Durango as possible during race weekend.

What businesses saw

Carver’s had a steady stream of business throughout the weekend, but did send some employees home when crowds weren’t as big as expected, Hurst said.

Customer traffic at Half Price Tees was up 27 percent over the same weekend last year, store owner Eric Kiesel said. Sales increased at an even greater rate, but, Kiesel said, “do I think it was what it was hyped to be? No, absolutely not.”

In a refrain that several other business people echoed, Kiesel said that the motorcycle rallies over Labor Day weekend are better for business than the Pro Challenge.

“A lot of the pro riders and staff, they’re here to bike, not to shop,” Kiesel said.

The Pro Challenge overlapped with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s 13th Annual Railfest, but the influx of people didn’t do much to boost the train’s ridership numbers, spokeswoman Andrea Seid said.

People already had plans related to the bicycle race, so the train handed out buy-one, get-one-free coupons to entice visitors to come back to Durango sometime during the next year, she said.

Durango Coffee Co. had lines out the door on Monday (“I’ve never sold so many breakfast burritos,” owner Tim Wheeler said). But Wheeler said Friday and Saturday sales were even or slightly down from the same weekend the year before.

Regardless of sales numbers, Wheeler and other business owners emphasized their enthusiasm for the event.

“It added a tremendous amount of excitement to the town,” Wheeler said.

Money in, money out

Months before the USA Pro Challenge rolled through town, the city of Durango was well aware of the thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours required to host the starting phase of the race. A sponsorship committee rounded up almost $340,000 in sponsorships, and La Plata County pitched in $25,000. The city made a direct contribution of $50,000, but budgeted about $560,000 total for the race to cover costs like road repairs, new paint and general city spruce-ups. The Durango Area Tourism Office spent about $6,500 on social media and a commercial, and put hours of staff members’ time into running booths, making media bags and general race organization, interim director Susan Lander said.

Local governments hoped the race would spur enough of an increase in sales and lodgers tax revenue that it would make up for those up-front costs. While those numbers won’t be available for another month, some were skeptical.

“It’s hard to imagine that there was enough extra business (about $7 million in sales) in town to replace the half-million spent on preparing for the race,” High Country News Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson wrote on the magazine’s blog.

Other local residents, including several Durango Herald readers, urged a critical look at the city’s investment in the race versus the measurable payback.

“The city should analyze what kind of money they put into the event,” Kiesel said.

It is “no excuse not to snowplow” this winter because Durango “put $500,000 into the Pro Challenge,” he jokingly warned.


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