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Iowa tourism officials question RAGBRAI's financial support of host towns

Some wonder why the iconic ride puts taxpayers at risk

State patrol officers direct traffic July 25 through an intersection during RAGBRAI. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the 2019 ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
State patrol officers direct traffic July 25 through an intersection during RAGBRAI. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the 2019 ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Headwinds facing RAGBRAI, an iconic weeklong statewide summer bike ride, grew stronger this week as some Iowa tourism officials questioned whether it has been too skimpy in supporting the towns that host thousands of cyclists while it raises lucrative sums from fees and sponsorships.

Those questions could also beset a new event — called Iowa’s Ride — that had planned to compete head-to-head with RAGBRAI, but announced Friday it would go a week earlier instead.

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa generates some $2 million each year in rider fees alone, based on 10,000 weeklong rider passes at $175 each and 1,500 single-day passes each day at $35 per day. In addition, a publicly unknown amount is generated from merchandise, charter fees, vendors and sponsorships.

Among the many expenses, RAGBRAI employed four full-time staff members — the same four who unexpectedly quit in October with the former director. T.J. Juskiewicz. launching Iowa’s Ride.

Additionally, RAGBRAI split the cost with taxpayers of the salaries of 18-20 Iowa State Patrol troopers who provide public safety support on the route, according to a Des Moines Register report. The amounts have not been made public.

Messages to The Register, its Virginia-based owner, Gannett Co., and the Iowa State Patrol were not returned.

Eight overnight communities that anchor the RAGBRAI route and host the thousands of riders each year receive $8,500 each to help offset costs of providing public safety, transportation, campgrounds, entertainment and more, which can run $75,000 to $150,000 per community, organizers have said.

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Tourism officials in communities around the state that have hosted RAGBRAI are questioning why communities that have struggled to break even are not given more financial support.

Council Bluffs Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Mark Eckman said he feels the host cities have been “taken advantage of, period, bottom line.”

Every several years, including July 21, Council Bluffs hosts the kickoff of RAGBRAI, drawing thousands. The city has welcomed its role in supporting the quirky and wildly popular tradition, Eckman said.

When all the bills were counted this year, the community lost $132,000 — even after the money from RAGBRAI — largely due to overtime for public safety officers, firefighters and public works officials. That left taxpayers to cover the difference, he said.

“It is representative of a very positive side of Iowa. It has an iconic status,” Eckman said. “But on the business side of it, there needs to be a conversation with RAGBRAI or Iowa’s Ride or the charters that are making money on the ride. They need to step up and shoulder more of the costs.”

Doug Shull, who helped Indianola host RAGBRAI this summer and in 2009, said towns take significant risk to host the ride and should receive more financial assistance from it. He noted his town ended up ahead — clearing some $20,000 — but organizers were unsure until a month after it ended.

Kevin Bourke, president and chief executive of the Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Ames, which last hosted RAGBRAI in 2018, spent more than $100,000 and broke even — but it meant a lot of work.

He said he wants to see more clarity on where profits go and would like to see more channeled back into the communities the ride passes through.

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“It is a big undertaking,” Bourke said. “The commitment the community has to undertake, especially a community the size of Ames with more infrastructure, and for RAGBRAI to give less than $9,000 for all that work. You have a bad weather day and all of a sudden it’s going to impact what a community can generate. There should be more of commitment from RAGBRAI than just saying, ‘we are bringing all of these people to your community.’”

Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, regularly rides RAGBRAI and has helped Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty host RAGBRAI several times. He estimated budgets for hosting it are about $150,000, with a large chunk going to entertainment and bands.

Communities typically absorb the cost of overtime for public safety, public works and other resources. But given the money thought to be generated by RAGBRAI, he questions why taxpayers should bear a burden.

“I think the ride is seen as a huge benefit for the state of Iowa and communities,” he said. “The concern is if the story is true all of this money is being made on RAGBRAI and not staying in Iowa. True up the towns and in-kind services provided.”

Schamberger said Iowa tourism officials, in a regularly scheduled meeting, this week discussed some of these issues, along with how to handle the RAGBRAI-Iowa’s Ride rivalry. He said a few of the tourism officials plan to meet with Gannett.

RAGBRAI’s website has been changed to say it is “looking at transparency around our giving and the commitments to the town.”

The Register provided a statement about its commitments to WHO-TV, which first reported on the issue. It said RAGBRAI officials are looking at “commitments across the event and are dedicated to making positive changes.”

RAGBRAI says it contributes all profits after expenses to Iowa charities, according to a handbook for the routes’ overnight towns.

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An advertisement by the Register, which started RAGBRAI in 1973, states that in 2019 the newspaper “gives back over $3 million annually” through events like RAGBRAI, A Community Thrives, which is Gannett’s charitable foundation, and Embrace Iowa, a partnership between Iowa Association of Community Action Directors and the Register.

About 20 charities each year with a focus on Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa receive contributions on behalf of RAGBRAI, the Register and the Gannett Foundation, according to the RAGBRAI website, but it does not detail the donations.

Juskiewicz, the 16-year RAGBRAI director who resigned with a scathing public letter, backed off direct competition with RAGBRAI from his Iowa’s Ride.

He apologized on Facebook, granting riders a reprieve in not having to choose between events.

Iowa’s Ride has been rescheduled for a week earlier — July 12 to 18. And the route will go from east to west, so those interested in doing both could finish Iowa’s Ride and then join RAGBRAI, which is July 19-25. Traditionally, it goes from Iowa’s west to east.

Juskiewicz declined to discuss financial questions surrounding RAGBRAI under his tenure.

He said it was public input — not a legal threat — that prompted him to shift Iowa’s Ride plans.

“There’s still a lot of people who want to do the ride,” Juskiewicz said. “I am not looking to do a 20,000-person ride. This is a smaller ride, getting back to the roots. A 5,000 person ride is what looking for. It will allow us to go back into smaller towns we couldn’t do before. I think 5,000-6,000 would be a good sized ride.”

Registration for RAGBRAI opened Monday.

Iowa’s Ride registration is also open. The fee is $150 through Feb. 1 and then raises to $175. Those who registered early under the old dates are eligible for a refund.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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