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Ironman under review by fee-conscious CdA chamber

Competitors exit the water before re-entering for a second lap during the 2013 Ironman triathlon in Coeur d’Alene. (FILE)
Competitors exit the water before re-entering for a second lap during the 2013 Ironman triathlon in Coeur d’Alene. (FILE)

After a successful run of Ironman competitions, the Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce is evaluating whether it will continue to sponsor the event after 2016.

There’s little doubt that Ironman is an inspirational race that benefits the community, said Steve Wilson, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer.

About 2,300 athletes converge on Coeur d’Alene in late June for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. They bring family and friends with them, filling hotels for the weekend and ringing up sales at restaurants and shops.

“We’ve also heard from folks that Ironman has changed their image of Coeur d’Alene,” Wilson said. “Not so many years ago, it was Aryans marching through downtown. Now, it’s triathletes marching down Sherman Avenue.”

But the chamber pays nearly $100,000 each year to the for-profit World Triathlon Corp. to bring the event to Coeur d’Alene.

Midway through a third, five-year contract with World Triathlon, the chamber board is assessing its options.

The current Ironman contract runs through 2017, but there’s a clause that would allow the chamber to end its commitment after the 2016 race.

Wilson said the chamber’s revenues have declined since the recession, which makes it more difficult to raise the annual sponsorship fee. The Coeur d’Alene Downtown Association, some local hotels and Idaho’s Tourism Department also chip in, though state support is likely to end, Wilson said.

Over the next several months, the chamber’s board wants to hear from local businesses and residents. If they want Coeur d’Alene to keep hosting Ironman, they’ll need to step up their financial support, Wilson said.

Finding or creating another organization to sponsor Ironman is also a possibility.

“The chamber takes on projects to stimulate the economy and jump-start a particular industry,” Wilson said. “We certainly have more bike shops in the community now, more fitness clubs and more awareness of endurance sports.”

Perhaps “it’s time for all of them to step up and let the chamber off the hook,” he said.

Efforts to reach the World Triathlon Corp. at its Tampa, Florida, headquarters last week were unsuccessful. The company puts on more than 30 Ironman events worldwide. Coeur d’Alene has been an event venue since 2003.

World Triathlon initially recruited resort communities to host Ironmans, but now more of the races take place in larger cities with deeper pockets for tourism promotion, Wilson said.

Kym Cooper, a 35-year-old triathlete from Coeur d’Alene, said she’ll be disappointed if Ironman leaves the community.

“There’s something like a hometown advantage,” she said. “It’s awesome to see all of the local athletes out on the course.”

Cooper is part of a groundswell of local residents who watched the race and were inspired to compete themselves.

After a few years of volunteering at Ironman, she became a distance runner. With a few marathons under her belt, she took up swimming and started training with two triathlon clubs. In June, she finished the Coeur d’Alene Ironman with a time of 16 hours, 45 minutes.

“It was on my bucket list,” Cooper said. And, “I kind of wanted the tattoo.”

She got a stylized tattoo of the Ironman logo on her right calf and has signed up for the 2015 Coeur d’Alene Ironman. “Training starts in six days,” Cooper said last week.

At Vertical Earth Performance Sports, the two-week run-up to Ironman is the busiest time of the year.

“It brings in so many people,” said Peter Hutter, an employee at the Coeur d’Alene bike shop. “We go from an average of 50 sales per day to 200 to 300 sales.”

Athletes bring their bikes by for last-minute adjustments. Jerseys and other clothing printed with “Coeur d’Alene” are hot sellers. So are compressed air cartridges for fixing flat tires, which can’t be transported on airplanes.

The shop also gets a year-round boost in bike sales from Ironman, Hutter said. People watch the event and decide to start cycling, either for fitness or competition.

Ironman brings an estimated economic benefit of $7 million to $8 million to the region, Wilson said. But the true impact is difficult to measure, because the event occurs during North Idaho’s summer tourism season, when hotels and restaurants are already busy, he said.

There’s also the fitness culture that Ironman promotes. But those benefits are hard to measure too, Wilson said.

“What’s the social value of having a major sporting event that focuses on ultimate health?” he said. “Intuitively, we would all say there’s some value there, but how much?”

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