“Why then should taxpayers do the heavy lifting by subsidizing an already successful event? Maybe just so the local politicians can take credit for something they really didn't do.”
A fiscally conservative policy center criticized Chattanooga officials for spending $225,000 on Ironman events.
In its annual Pork Report, released Tuesday, the Beacon Center of Tennessee argued that the city government should not spend taxpayer money for the triathlon races that have become identified with Chattanooga. Quoting the city's budget, the author of the report pointed out that the for-profit events sell out in mere minutes, with thousands of prospective athletes clamoring for a chance to compete.
"Why then should taxpayers do the heavy lifting by subsidizing an already successful event?" the author of the Beacon Center report wrote. "Maybe just so the local politicians can take credit for something they really didn't do."
But Andrew Bailey, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's tourism center, told the Times Free Press that the city's spending was smart.
"The return on investment is pretty clear," he said Tuesday in an email.
Bailey studied the Ironman's impact on the city in 2014, surveying people who attended the event in its first year here. He concluded that people spent $10.3 million in Chattanooga because of the race.
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Since 2014, the city has budgeted money to support the event. The first year, it budgeted $100,000. By 2016, with the city now sporting two Ironman races, the budget grew to $225,000.
Outdoor Chattanooga, a division of the city's economic and community development department, also supports the event, building the starts and exits for the swim portion of the races. The group serves as a coordinator, too, handling issues as detailed as the trash and recycling at the race, Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes said. He did not have a specific answer for how much money the division spends on Ironman.
Dozens of Chattanooga Police Department officers also work the event, spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said, though she was not sure of the exact cost to the city.
Financial reports show, however, that letting men and women swim, bike and run throughout town to the brink of exhaustion is big business. Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate, purchased the company that organizes Ironman events for $650 million in 2015, according to Reuters.
"The goal of events such as Ironman is to be successful and rake in a handsome profit for doing so," the author of the Beacon Center report wrote. "And it works quite well."
Local governments also have received a boost from the races. Since 2013, revenue from hotel-motel taxes has increased by 32 percent. For the city, that was an extra $1.6 million by last year, according to the most recent financial report available. For the county, the boost meant an extra $1.8 million.
The county uses its money to fund the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city, meanwhile, uses hotel-motel tax revenue to improve downtown and the waterfront area.
In studying the Ironman three years ago, Bailey estimated that 21,800 people showed up to watch the race, half of them from out of town. Surveyors asked sample questions about how long they had been in town, what their own financial background was and how much they spent. Largely, the Ironman draws upper-middle and upper-class families. Participants spent about $2.4 million in the city for the event, according to Bailey's research, while visitors spent about $7.9 million.
The city signed a five-year contract to host the Ironman in August 2013. At the time, the Ironman organization wanted to expand into the southeastern United States. Chattanooga was competing with Hilton Head, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Asheville, N.C., said Tim Morgan, chairman of the Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee, which falls under the Convention and Visitors Bureau umbrella.
In November 2014, the city and Ironman signed a four-year contract to host Ironman 70.3, an event half as long as the main race. In addition to those two races, the city also hosted the Ironman 70.3 World Championships this year.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.