The city of Durango did the right thing in declining to apply to host next year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. As the old saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Durango was fooled by the organizers of the bike race. As City Manager Ron LeBlanc rather diplomatically put it, “In terms of the outside visitors, we were disappointed that the information from the race was off, significantly off. They exaggerated all their numbers.”
Race organizers told the city the event would attract as many as 25,000 spectators. But officials estimate the actual crowd that showed up on race day at 11,000 to 13,000. And given that crowd included a significant number of locals, the number of visitors drawn to Durango by the race is a mere fraction of what the city had been led to expect.
That might be part of a pattern. The Denver Post reported that race organizers estimated the downtown Denver crowd at 250,000 although Denver police saw only 150,000. The organizers also said the race drew a total of 1 million spectators and generated almost $100 million in spending. But it is unclear where either number comes from or exactly what was measured. Are the race’s backers saying one out of every five people in Colorado lined up along the route?
In retrospect, perhaps city officials and local organizers should have been more skeptical. After all, while cycling is a great sport, it is not a stadium sport. Even at its start, a cross-country race is within sight of any given point only briefly.
It is also unclear why anyone thought it was necessary to spend money to boost business in August, already one of the busiest months of the year. Obviously, no one wants to hold a bike race across Colorado in the winter, but angling for events closer to one of the shoulder seasons might be a better use of resources.
The fact is, the city was misled about what to expect, and city officials have every right to be piqued. Not only did the city spend about $45,000 directly, but local supporters raised and spent more than $500,000.
The city did get the sculpture that now adorns the roundabout on Florida Road – although not all city residents knew we needed it – but beyond that the race produced little in the way of benefits. Anecdotal evidence suggests some businesses actually suffered because customers shied away from downtown and the expected crowds. That was all the more disappointing in that local businesses had been told to stock up and staff up for the big weekend.
The city could recoup its investment or even turn a small profit from the holiday season sale of USA Pro Cycling Challenge T-shirts and memorabilia. And there is a benefit to local tourism from the exposure Durango got from the event.
That last, however, should not be overrated. The enthusiasm for that exposure seems predicated on an optimistic estimate of how many people watch bicycle racing and the idea that something like this can put Durango on the map.
As with any advertising, a reminder of our city’s “brand” and reinforced name recognition has value. But the calculation that the exposure this generated was worth $11.5 million inspires no more confidence than the crowd numbers.
Besides, Durango is already recognized as a tourist destination – nationwide and around the world. And if it makes anyone’s bucket list, it will be because of the scenery and the railroad, not staged events.
Hosting the bike race was not a bad idea. And any blame for its failure to match expectations should be directed at its Georgia-based organizers. But the city was right to pass on next year.