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Two Ironman triathlons in Sonoma County yield $20 million windfall for local economy

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About a week before the first Ironman event of 2019 comes to Santa Rosa in May, Kevin Buchholz’s cycle shop in Railroad Square starts to receive shipments of disassembled, high-end triathlon bikes from all over the world.

The crew at Buchholz’s Echelon Cycle & Multisport puts the bikes back together and tunes them to prime condition for the popular event, a grueling long-distance race that includes swimming, cycling and running.

The shop provides shipping services to a couple dozen triathletes among the nearly 4,000 entrants expected to compete in the full Ironman next month, covering 140.6 miles, and the shorter Ironman event here in July that’s half that distance. Another 60 to 80 triathletes who travel with their own bikes bring them into the Echelon Cycle shop for servicing or fine tuning.

The business Buchholz does during the two Ironman endurance competitions represents a small portion of the $20 million economic windfall the contests provided for the city and Sonoma County in 2018, according to a new independent report. The report, commissioned by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, found that the two sporting events attracted nearly 14,000 visitors to the county.

“We’re not the only (cycle) shop that’s busy,” said Buchholz, adding the benefits of the Ironman far outweigh any inconveniences, particularly street closures.

“It’s only a few days, maybe a week in the year,” he said. “I just think it’s a great event for our economy. People come here from all over the world and spend money.”

The Ironman events have been hosted by Santa Rosa for the past two years, as part of a five-year deal that moved the then-named Ironman Vineman series from Windsor to Santa Rosa. This year, the full Ironman Santa Rosa is set for May 11, while the shorter contest is slated for July 27.

According to the chamber’s report, the total direct and indirect economic impact of the full Ironman is $9.1 million plus another $11 million for the second event. In 2018, the longer Ironman drew 1,508 athletes and 3,670 visiting spectators, while the shorter one attracted 2,486 athletes and 5,971 visiting spectators.

The local economic spillover from the two races far exceeded city officials’ expectations of $13 million in countywide economic activity.

“I’m thrilled with it. I love events that bring people downtown,” Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said.

Not surprisingly, the half-Ironman event brings more participants and thus more visitors. Last year, each triathlete came here with a group of about 3.4 people on average, according to the economic impact report.

In terms of lodging, the participants and spectators for both events paid for 22,772 overnight room stays. That brought in $2.6 million for area hotels, motels and resorts, another $2.8 million to owners of vacation rental properties and $27,479 for campground stays.

The total for taxes and fees collected for overnight lodging, sales tax, airline passenger facility fees and rental car fees were almost $1.5 million, according to the report.

For Buchholz’s shop, servicing triathletes’ bikes is only part of the revenue he generates during the Ironman races.

“They each spend a few hundred on labor and parts,” he said of participants. “But for each event, we see a spike in sales of around $25,000 to $35,000.”

Santa Rosa officials said the economic activity generated by the Ironman events far exceed the cost of hosting the competitions. Planning and economic development officials put the city’s cost of the full Ironman at $140,552, with the biggest expenses being $38,189 for police, fire and public works staff and $30,348 for advertising. The city also pays half of the $125,000 fee for the rights to host the full Ironman in Santa Rosa, while the chamber pays the other half.

The Santa Rosa chamber contributed another $210,857 toward the full event last year, including $62,500 for its share of the Ironman fee, $31,236 for event staffing, $18,734 for athlete bus transportation and $60,952 for traffic control signs.

City officials are still compiling a list of its expenses for the half- Ironman event. Thus far, city officials calculated spending of $21,208 for fire, water and public works staff.

“The chamber study shows that our collaboration on events like Ironman are broadly beneficial and allow us to maximize our investment in reunifying Courthouse Square,” Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn said. “These large events provide a boost to city and county businesses, and Ironman in particular gave us a tourism infusion when we needed it most right after the (2017) fires.”

McGlynn said hosting world-class events like Ironman require a solid partnership between the city, the chamber and the county.

Kim Link, a service manager for the chamber’s Visit Santa Rosa program, said the initial estimate of $13 million of economic impact for the 2017 Ironman events was low. That’s because the assessment of the competitions’ financial benefits wasn’t as exhaustive as the comprehensive study the chamber commissioned to derive the financial windfall from the 2018 events.

Local officials worked directly with Ironman organizers to conduct a survey of participating triathletes to ensure that certain questions were asked on the survey in order to conduct a “deep dive” economic analysis, Link said.

Dave Reid, Ironman’s Santa Rosa race director, said the survey was sent to more than 5,000 participants. About 20 percent of them responded, which is considered a high response rate.

“We asked where they were staying, how many nights, how many rooms, how many people were coming with them,” he said, adding that the survey tried to target participants’ spending patterns while they were in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.

Reid said the Santa Rosa half-Ironman is one of the biggest in the world in terms of triathlete participation. The draw is obvious, he said.

“Sonoma County and Santa Rosa are very special places to race — beautiful,” he said. “There are lots of things for family and athletes to do before the event. … All of the things that make Sonoma County special are on display.”

Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said the full Ironman triathlon has become a bucket list race for triathletes. The economic report, he said, is a confirmation of initial perceptions after the first two years of hosting the longer competition.

“Ironman is a very positive economic event for Sonoma County. … I certainly wasn’t surprised,” he said. “I was really pleased to see our assumptions confirmed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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