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RAGBRAI, in mea culpa over past philanthropic practices, commits more to Iowa charities

Iconic summer ride also promises more financial support to key cities on route

Cyclists cruise along Hamilton Blvd as RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, riders leave Sioux Ci
Cyclists cruise along Hamilton Blvd as RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, riders leave Sioux City, Iowa, Saturday, July 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal, Jim Lee)

Following a messy few months for one of Iowa’s iconic institutions, RAGBRAI has committed to give more than $300,000 to Iowa communities and charities this year and $1 million a year within the next five years — and has acknowledged misleading Iowans on past philanthropic promises.

The mea culpa comes just weeks before RAGBRAI’s “route announcement party” Jan. 25 in Des Moines reveals the eight anchor overnight towns for the 48th installment of the midsummer, cross-Iowa bike ride, which this year is from July 19 to 25.

It also comes weeks after riders, vendors, tourism officials and others questioned the organization, and its parent companies of the Des Moines Register and Gannett Co., about just where the ride’s profits were going.

“After looking at past documents, it showed we didn’t accurately portray our giving history,” said Anne Lawrie, senior marketing manager of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. “They were misleading. Our goal as new leaders of RAGBRAI is to be more transparent in documentation and the actions we are taking. We have to do better, and we will do better.”

A new agreement between RAGBRAI and tourism leaders reached Tuesday calls for greater financial support for Iowa communities hosting the ride, charity commitments, annual reports of giving and a strategic advisory committee of leaders from throughout the state.

Despite years of promoting that all profits after expenses went to Iowa charities, RAGBRAI was generating millions of dollars a year while Iowa communities that helped make the event happen absorbed much of the risk and received little support. There was also a scant record of giving to charities in Iowa.

That didn’t sit well with longtime supporters such as Craig Cooper, of Grinnell, who ended his affiliation with RAGBRAI after years as an official bike shop during the ride, a charter that brought hundreds of riders and a sponsor of the annual route announcement party.

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“The good people of Iowa have put forward a lot of effort to make RAGBRAI happen only to find out now the Des Moines Register and Gannett has not kept up their part of the bargain,” Cooper said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Cooper said he is supporting the July 12-18 Iowa’s Ride launched by former RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz.

Juskiewicz and his staff resigned unexpectedly and publicly in October, citing concerns being muzzled and lacking independence.

Juskiewicz, who led RAGBRAI for 16 years, has promised all Iowa’s Ride profits after expenses to Iowa charities — half to eight overnight towns and half to one Iowa charity, which this year will be the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

But with no baseline, he does not yet have amounts, he said.

“This is the first year of the event, so it would be impossible to understand what that dollar amount would be,” Juskiewicz said.

Event planners generally anticipate spending about 30 percent of revenue on overhead, such as wages, insurance, police, medical personnel and portable toilets. The more riders, the further dollars stretch.

Juskiewicz said that while RAGBRAI director, he had no control over what happened to profits. Proceeds went to Gannett’s foundation and it was distributed from there, he said.

Lawrie is part of a new leadership team led by Dieter Drake, who had been producing cycling events in Colorado before being hired to replace Juskiewicz.

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“We figured out quickly we need to be better partners to our communities,” Lawrie said. “The only thing we can do is be better moving forward.”

Lawrie declined to say how much RAGBRAI had been making and giving to Iowa, but acknowledged RAGBRAI and its parent companies are for-profit businesses and will keep making money from the ride.

While RAGBRAI draws tens of thousands of people from around the state, nation and world, overnight towns in some cases spent more than $100,000 to host the riders and donated the time of public safety, public works and other officials — and sometimes lost money.

Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, the tourism bureau for the Iowa City-Coralville area and active RAGBRAI rider and organizer when the event has passed through the past 20 years, had called for a more equitable arrangement and more transparency.

Schamberger, on behalf of the Iowa Destination Marketing Alliance of tourism leaders, helped craft the framework of the plan the alliance unanimously approved Tuesday at its quarterly meeting in Waterloo. He said while the misleading information from RAGBRAI “bothers me,” he is pleased with the new plan.

“We are concerned RAGBRAI doesn’t fall by the wayside,” Schamberger said. “This is a 47-year tradition, and we want it to be here another 47 years. ... This is far more equitable, and creates an opportunity for RAGBRAI to grow decades to come.”

Key points of the plan include:

• RAGBRAI will increase contributions to the eight overnight towns from $8,500 in the past to $15,000 in 2020.

• RAGBRAI will provide $10,000 to each of the seven midday meeting towns in 2020.

• RAGBRAI will guarantee each overnight town receives a minimum of $15,000 charitable donation for 2020. The donations will be presented during the ride in each overnight town. The towns will select the charity of choice.

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• RAGBRAI commits to implementing a fundraising plan with the goal of raising $1 million annually for Iowa communities within the next five years.

• RAGBRAI commits to an annual financial impact report that will detail the monetary value of the event, by community, based on metrics determined by the Iowa Destination Marketing Alliance. Lawrie said the report would be public.

• RAGBRAI will provide more financing for entertainment costs in each overnight town, including covering the cost of staging and working to secure sponsorship for the towns. Schamberger estimated staging could be a savings of up to $15,000 per town.

• RAGBRAI will form a high-level strategic planning committee with city, state and county officials to ensure the continued growth and sustainability of the event, transparency in operations and a commitment to charitable giving, among other things.

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

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