• Fri July 10 2009
  • Posted Jul 9, 2009
By Kathleen Nelson and Tony Messenger ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH 07/10/2009 The Tour of Missouri, which has grown in two years to one of the top cycling events in the United States, is being threatened with cancellation. A memo dated July 6 from Linda Martinez, director of the Department of Economic Development, outlined $9.9 million in budget cuts, including a proposal to eliminate the $1.5 million allocation for the Tour of Missouri from the state's tourism budget. "To receive word of this proposal is devastating," said Chris Aronhalt of Medalist Sports, which manages the race with the tourism division. "We're ready to go. We're at the no-turning-back point." Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Nixon froze $325 million from the $23 billion budget approved by lawmakers in May because of projected shortfalls in revenue. Nixon's spokesman, Jack Cardetti, said that as part of that freeze, the governor instructed each department to decide how to cut their expenses. "A lot of states have huge budget messes," Cardetti said. "That's a road the governor is committed not to go down. " The proposed cut comes at a time when interest in cycling is growing. Lance Armstrong has come out of retirement to go for an eighth Tour de France title and is just split seconds out of the lead after six stages. The Tour of Missouri is ranked only behind the Tour of California among events in the United States, by the International Cycling Union. Proponents contend that the race, scheduled for Sept. 7-13, provides bang for the buck. Gary McElyea, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, said the race accounted for roughly 8 percent of the state's $17.3 million tourism budget. He added that an economic impact study paid for by the state estimated that the race attracted 400,000 spectators and generated $25 million to $30 million. "I don't have a budget big enough to buy the publicity that this race brings to us," said Bob Smith, interim tourism director. "And there's no price on the good will that comes to those small towns who get to see these amazing athletes." Smith said that the tourism commission, headed by Kinder, had scheduled a conference call for 2 p.m. today to discuss $1.5 million in alternative cuts to the tourism budget. Cardetti also noted that Martinez's memo outlined recommendations only and that Nixon and budget director Linda Luebbering would make final decisions on cuts in the next two or three weeks. Time is of the essence for the race, however. The event has an operating budget of $3.3 million, and Aronhalt said finding a sponsor to pick up the deficit at such a late date would be a tall order. He said that Medalist and the Tour of Missouri had contracts with hotels, vendors, sponsors and teams and that canceling the race could breach the contracts. Among the teams that have committed to the race are seven currently competing in the world's premiere cycling event, the Tour de France, including Astana, the team for which Lance Armstrong rides. Armstrong is second after six stages of the Tour de France, less than a second off the lead; his teammates are third, fourth and fifth. "I know people from Peachtree City, Ga., who have bought tickets to see Astana line up in St. Louis," Aronhalt said. "If the race is canceled, is the governor going to refund that money?" The Tour of Missouri has been a political hot potato since it started three years ago under Gov. Matt Blunt and has become one of Kinder's most visible projects. But some of Kinder's critics have suggested the race shouldn't use state money. During last fall's election, then Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat, was critical of the Tour for using job creation money from the Missouri Development Finance Board. Page lost the race for lieutenant governor to Kinder. Kinder is expected to challenge Nixon in the governor's race in 2012, and relations between the two have been icy, adding fuel to the fire that some of the decisions being made about the Tour of Missouri — on both sides of the aisle — are political in nature. As the news broke of the possible budget cut Thursday, "save the tour" sites began showing up on various blogs and social networking services, and Kinder staff members were linking to them on Twitter, urging people to call Nixon's office. "We are urging cycling fans across the state and country to contact him and release the funding," McElyea said. Jeff Rainford, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, said that the mayor planned to call Nixon and lobby him to keep the funds for the Tour of Missouri. Rainford said the event had been important to tourism in and around St. Louis and has spurred an interest in cycling in the region. "It's a really great event, and we hope it can be saved," Rainford said. "It's worth saving." Gov. Jay Nixon at 573-751-3222

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