KC Star: Nixon administration mulling cut to Tour of Missouri; would force cancellation

by Jason Noble
Kansas City Star

JEFFERSON CITY State officials this week proposed slamming the brakes on the Tour of Missouri , a weeklong, multi-city bicycle race scheduled to spin through Kansas City.

Responding to a request from Gov. Jay Nixon for possible budget cuts, the Department of Economic Development on Monday moved to freeze $1.5 million in state funding for the race.

The suggestion is raising panic among event organizers, who say it would force cancellation of the seven-stage race just weeks ahead its Sept. 7 start. Canceling the event now could open organizers to breach-of-contract lawsuits and cost Missouri tens of millions of dollars in lost revenues.

“We’re at the no-turning-back point,” said Chris Aronhalt, managing partner of Medalist Sports, the management company running the tour. “To have received word of this is devastating.”

Nixon, a Democrat, has asked all departments to outline cuts that bring spending in line with revenues hit hard by the recession. His administration will evaluate the proposed cuts and implement what it deems necessary in the coming weeks.

“We’re going to make sure we have a government we can afford, so don’t end up in same financial mess that a lot of our neighboring states are in,” said Nixon Spokesman Jack Cardetti.

The cut was identified in a memo (attached below) sent to the state’s budget and planning office outlining proposals to reduce department costs by nearly $10 million. The state’s share represents nearly half of the tour’s $3.3 million budget.

For the tour to continue without state funding, organizers would have to find another “title sponsor” willing to put up $1.5 million, Aronhalt said. Given the state of the economy and the late date, finding such a sponsor is highly unlikely.

Cancellation of the tour could put everyone from spectators to cities to corporate sponsors to elite cycling teams in a lurch, he said.

With less than two months before the tour kicks off in St. Louis, planning is well underway both statewide and locally.

Fourteen professional teams — including Lance Armstrong’s Astana team and six others currently competing in the Tour de France — have accepted invitations to the Missouri race. Those invitations include pledges to pay for airfare and other expenses, Aronhalt said.

Sponsors like Columbia Sportswear and Drury Hotels have committed resources as well, and a dozen host cities across the state have begun preparations — even erecting highway signs denoting them as tour sites.

“There will be some legal ramifications (for race organizers) if the proposed cut is accepted by the governor,” Aronhalt said.

Some fans, too, might take a financial hit if the tour is cancelled. A study from last year’s tour showed nearly 37,000 people traveled from out of state to watch segments of the tour, leading Aronhalt to believe some may have already booked flights and hotel rooms for this year’s event.

For the first time, Kansas City will host the event’s final stage: a circuit race that could draw tens of thousands of spectators.

As late as Thursday, local officials had not been informed of the proposed funding cut and were moving forward with their plans, said Alan Carr, a spokesman for the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association.

A local organizing committee, backed by the convention and visitors association, is leading preparations for the Sept. 13 race, and is operating on a $150,000 budget, he said. Much of those efforts so far have focused on fundraising and attracting sponsors, so little money has actually been spent.

Organizers and backers of the tour questioned the wisdom of cutting funding and canceling the event, given its positive economic return to the state.

The study of last year’s tour estimated attendance at all seven stages to be more than 430,000, and calculated spending by spectators at $29.8 million, including $15.6 million spent by tourists from out of state.

“For that level of investment, this was one of the strongest return-on-investment platforms the state could be involved in,” Aronhalt, the event manager, said.

A spokesman for the department of economic development acknowledged possible economic gains from the tour, but said other goals were more important in the recession.

“Creating jobs number is our No. 1 priority right now,” Spokesman John Fougere said. “That takes precedent over everything.”

The tour has been championed since its inception by Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a leader in the state GOP and one of Nixon’s top rivals.

Kinder serves as chairman of the state tourism commission, and his deputy lieutenant governor, Jerry Dowell, is executive director of the non-profit organization that operates the tour. The event has figured heavily in Kinder’s campaign and constituent-outreach efforts.

Kinder Spokesman Gary McElyea said he hoped politics would not be a factor in Nixon’s decision and noted sizable cuts that have already been made to state tourism programs and the event’s positive financial return.

“This is not about politics for us,” McElyea said. “This is about bringing back the largest sporting event ever held in the state of Missouri and generating tens of millions of dollars in economic impact for the state.”

Cardetti, the Nixon spokesman, said only economic considerations would figure into the governor’s decision.

“On a number of these issues, it’s not whether or not the governor likes program or not; it’s whether we can afford it,” he said.

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