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  • Lee Rood
  • Thu May 09 2013
  • Posted May 9, 2013

Oh, David Kaus, you dickens: challenging me to take on RAGBRAI and The Des Moines Register in one column.

I love it.

Kaus, an Urbandale retiree who likes bikers just fine unless they blow through stop signs, wants to know how much the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa costs local taxpayers.

“The Register has always investigated who pays for this and who pays for that,” he told me. “But it looks to me like the taxpayers assume most of the expense of RAGBRAI, and the Register gets most of the publicity out of it.”

Well, not exactly.

There’s no arguing the Register receives revenue and publicity from one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions — a ride that a handful of employees created 41 years ago. And there’s no doubt some organizations have come up short of anticipated revenues when plans have been too ambitious, rides have been too exhausting or weather has been uncooperative, organizers tell me.

But RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz would tell you the weeklong event each summer generates revenue for the vast majority of host communities and local taxpayers.

“We get that question all the time,” Juskiewicz told me. “But it’s not a drain.”

This year’s ride from July 21 to 27 will attract 10,000 official riders — 8,500 weeklong riders chosen through a computer lottery and 1,500 day riders.

But crowds may push over 25,000 in central Iowa when you add in those who join the ride for a day without passes, support people, vendors and more. Seventy percent will come from out of state.

There are eight overnight towns for RAGBRAI XLI: Council Bluffs, Harlan, Perry, Des Moines, Knoxville, Oskaloosa, Fairfield and Fort Madison.

Juskiewicz says each overnight town along the route devises a budget and uses revenues from vending fees, souvenir sales, sponsorships, and food and beverage sales to finance the public costs of hosting for a night.

“These revenues allow the towns to pay for expenses like portable toilets, entertainment and the additional law enforcement officers that some towns need to bring in,” he said.

The considerable dollars coming in tend to make up for the cost to taxpayers. Juskiewicz pointed to a University of Northern Iowa study, commissioned by the Register after the 2008 ride, which found $3 million in direct spending each day of RAGBRAI.

Juskiewicz said the Register also pays the Iowa State Patrol “a large chunk of change” every year for some of its added costs.

Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa State Patrol said the Register’s donation covers the entire cost of the 13 safety education officers who work the ride each year for the State Patrol.

Both Bright and Juskiewicz declined to release dollar figures.

“What comes out of our budgets is meals,” Bright said. “And honestly, most of us drink only Gatorade and water throughout the day, and we have one meal at night.”

Bright said the ride benefits the State Patrol because it amounts to good public relations. “We get to know a lot of riders. They appreciate us being out there,” he said.

Juskiewicz said the RAGBRAI office, a small department within The Des Moines Register Media enterprise, expands from three full-time employees and a part-timer to more than 50 before the big week each July or August.

Some of the added staff are unpaid volunteers; others are crew members paid mostly minimum wage. All help with customer service issues, he said.

The Register does not charge a bid fee to communities to host such a major event, even though the sponsors of other large attractions do. Nearly 150 to 200 Iowa towns and cities seek to become one of the overnight towns each year.

Small towns may have to hire up to 50 extra police officers, but organizers in the overnight towns may ultimately make as much as six figures by the time riders blow out of town, Juskiewicz said.

“These towns do extremely well,” he said. “Most towns are successful in covering all expenses through their revenues so it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything to host the event.”

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to predict the weather, and rains and really hot weather have been known to stick a dagger in anticipated revenues. Last year, in Marshalltown, a huge downpour and 70-mph winds cleared out campgrounds and dampened beer sales.

Rustin Lippincott, a member of Fairfield RAGBRAI’s executive committee and executive director of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said host cities benefit from the wisdom gleaned from past experiences.

“Some organizations didn’t make their expectations in 1997 (the last time Fairfield hosted) because it was hot,” he said. “This year, we’re taking out rain insurance. Marshalltown had such a policy last year, and they still walked away with money in their pockets.”

Still, the budgeting process is a guessing game, Lippincott admitted.

“A church can make 4,000 spaghetti dinners. But you may only sell 500. (RAGBRAI staffers) tell us, ‘Don’t overextend yourself. Recognize there will be many options for dinner.’ ”

Fairfield opted against hiring a big-name band this year that could have cost organizers as much as $30,000. Instead, the committee announced its headliner would be the Spazmatics, a fun group from Chicago that’s a good fit for this year’s “Cirque de Fairfield” theme.

“The act drives the beer sales,” he said. “It takes a lot of beer to pay for the Counting Crows.”

Host communities also buffer themselves by seeking sponsorships from counties and local businesses, and charging small fees for things like showers or towels.

Most of the expenses pass through cities or chambers of commerce, but Fairfield’s organizing committee has formed its own independent legal entity, Fairfield RAGBRAI, to protect further from unforeseen legal issues.

“It’s a fine line,” Lippincott said of the budgeting process. “We want it to be respectable, fun and safe, but we also want it memorable. We are making every effort to maximize our revenues and be cautious to not overextend ourselves.”

Kaus, our Urbandale reader, also might be encouraged to know that most hosts put proceeds back into their communities. And the Register rolls its profits into a community investment program, awarding grants each year to deserving organizations.

And in places like Coralville, which has hosted RAGBRAI four times, each event has been a moneymaker, said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City-Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2011, the last time Coralville hosted, it meant $35,000 for the school district, a community foundation and United Way organizations, he said.

A new study, expected later this year, will provide more insight into RAGBRAI’s impact on communities.

Schamberger told me researchers from the University of Iowa Department of Urban and Regional Planning are going to use a new model to calculate direct spending at Fairfield’s RAGBRAI stop in July.

“We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “People really do want to know how much RAGBRAI brings in.”


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