News-Press: City waits to learn fate of tour

by Alyson E. Raletz

An internationally acclaimed bicycle race that is set to roll through St. Joseph and Chillicothe in September could come to a quick halt, depending on Gov. Jay Nixon’s next move.

Less than two months away from the Tour of Missouri’s Sept. 7 gun start in St. Louis, the Department of Economic Development is recommending a cut of $1.5 million to the race. If Mr. Nixon agrees, the financial blow could seriously jeopardize the race and likely result in a cancellation.

“We had no idea there was any hint this was a possibility, so yeah, this was a shock,” said Dick Sipe, chairman of the St. Joseph Local Organizing Committee for Stage 6 of the tour, which is scheduled to run from Chillicothe to St. Joseph on Sept. 12. The full tour ends Sept. 13 in Kansas City.

The group already has spent $15,000 of its roughly $100,000 budget, but now is hesitant to follow through with the advertising and marketing expenses it planned on making in the next month.

A spokesman for Mr. Nixon told The Associated Press he wouldn’t make a decision for several more weeks.

“We’re reluctant to do anything,” Mr. Sipe said. “You can’t let something of this size just hang there. We’ve got money committed.”

Andy Clements, assistant director of public works for the city, feared the question mark could scare off international sponsors of a race that gives Missouri and St. Joseph unparalleled exposure.

“Even making that announcement really hurts the tour,” said Mr. Clements, who handles tour arrangements for the city.

Still, the news hasn’t deterred local sponsors, such as Boehringer-Ingelheim Vetmedica and Heartland Health.

“It’s unfortunate this is happening, but we can’t sit back and wait and see what happens,” said Dan Nowalk of Boehringer. “This is a great opportunity. We don’t want to let it slip by.”

Local organizers said that while they won’t pull the trigger on much funding until a decision is made, they will continue to plan under the assumption it will go on as scheduled.

But athletes an ocean away from Missouri on Friday weren’t so confident.

Christian Vande Velde, winner of last year’s Tour of Missouri and top five finisher in last year’s Tour de France, posted a message to his Twitter account Friday just hours after completing a mountain stage at the Tour de France.

“The Tour of Missouri is in trouble. Please help this great race survive,” Mr. Vande Velde wrote, placing a link to the tour’s Web site after his message.

George Hincapie, the 2007 Tour of Missouri winner, also found time to “tweet” Friday:

“http://savethetourofmissour... lets try (sic) and save this race ...,” wrote Mr. Hincapie, who was also competing in the Tour of France during his afternoon entry.

The Missouri Tourism Commission met Friday to try to do just that. Commissioners voted unanimously to reaffirm its stance to fully fund the state’s more than $3 million obligation to the Tour, according to a news release.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder also appointed Marci Bennett, a tourism commissioner and executive director of the St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau, to lead a budget subcommittee to help address the possible withholdings to the tourism budget.

Mr. Kinder in October announced the tour’s Stage One — the race’s kickoff — translated into $703,332 in tourist spending and 4,200 visitors to St. Joseph in September 2008, the first time St. Joseph was selected as a host city.

An estimated 434,000 spectators combined watched the seven-day race at some point. Total economic impact was pegged at $29.8 million.

Local organizers have written Rep. Ed Wildberger, a St. Joseph Democrat, to help convince the governor to release the funding, but he said he didn’t plan on trying to persuade Gov. Nixon’s decision.

“We have to look realistically at the economic status of the state right now,” Mr. Wildberger said. “You can’t do away with the essentials to have an extravagant event.”

Sen. Brad Lager, whose district includes Chillicothe, said as a former legislative budget chairman, he understood the financial challenges state government faces, but he disagreed with the department’s recommendation.

He likened cutting the $1.5 million from roughly $7 billion in the state’s general revenue to a household that earns $50,000, trying to save $10.71 in its budget.

“Considering the contracts are all let ... it would be an irresponsible act to withhold those dollars,” said Mr. Lager, a Savannah Republican. “Ten dollars and 71 cents. I mean, are you serious?”

Meanwhile Friday, Debbie Flugrad, a St. Joseph bicycle enthusiast, watched coverage of the Tour de France, where she said she frequently heard references to the Tour of Missouri.

“It’s just mind-boggling to me that they would not want this event,” Ms. Flugrad said. “More people, more regular people follow this than you think.”

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