Modesto's economic pulse racing for Amgen

02/15/2009 3:08 AM

02/15/2009 3:25 AM

As Modesto puts out the welcome mat Tuesday in grand fashion for the Amgen Tour of California, it hopes the world-class bike race will leave the city a generous tip in its wake.

The nine-day road race is the largest cycling event in America. Modesto is the Stage 3 finish of a 104-mile route from San Jose. Last year, the city was the start of Stage 3, but the economic impact of the stage's finish is expected to be greater and last longer.

Jennifer Mullen, chief executive officer and executive director of the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau and co-chairwoman of the Amgen Tour local organizing committee, expects about 1,000 people -- Amgen riders, crew members, support staff, media and more -- to flood into town.

Mullen's prediction doesn't include the spectators, locals and others from as far afield as Europe, who will fill downtown Modesto to watch the race and its high-profile superstar, Lance Armstrong.

"International or national, our job is to make people feel really welcome," Mullen said. "We want them to feel that Modesto is great. Like, 'I had a good time and I'd like to come back.' "

Modesto outbid 50 other cities to be named the Stage 3 finish. The cyclists will make two laps around a circuit that winds through downtown Modesto and the college neighborhood.

After the last racers cross the finish line about 4 p.m., they will stay in Modesto for the night before heading to Merced the next morning for the start of Stage 4.

Last year, the race drew about 9,000 people downtown. While Mullen said she isn't sure how many people to expect, she said estimates of 20,000 to 30,000 for the day seem on target.

By comparison, Modesto's annual Xclamation Festival brings about 15,000 music lovers into the downtown streets.

That means at least two things for the local economy -- a bunch of people who need to eat somewhere and a bunch of people who need to sleep somewhere.

Two days before the race, more than 700 Modesto hotel rooms were committed, with closer to 800 expected to sell out. That would mean about half of the city's 1,521 hotel rooms would be taken up by Amgen tour members and spectators.

Mullen said that is a major boon for the typically slow hotel rental month of February.

Boon for eateries

The other most directly affected industry will be the area's restaurants. The local organizing committee will give away 450 vouchers to Amgen support staff, which are good for meals at 10 participating downtown restaurants. Each $15 voucher will be reimbursed to the restaurant afterward.

The participating restaurants are Bacchus, Barkin' Dog Grill, Clayton's, Firkin & Fox, Harvest Moon, Paper Moon, Skewers, Thailand Restaurant, Tresetti's World Caffe and Vito's Italian.

Add in the spectators, press, entourages and volunteers expected to be in or around downtown for the race and accompanying festival, and a table might be the hardest thing to get in town that night.

Restaurants have braced themselves for a big night. Many downtown eateries have added staff or made sure to be at full staff. Others will not take reservations that night and a few have specials on their menu for the event.

Mitch Maisetti, co-owner of Clayton's and Tresetti's, said the restaurants will have drink and meal specials. While he knows the traffic, congestion and closed streets will cause some people headaches, he said the positives greatly outweigh any inconveniences.

"The reality of this is everyone will be busy downtown that day. I would imagine that even the Black Angus and Olive Garden will be packed from people in town; they're going to spill over everywhere," he said. "Especially in a bad economy, whenever we know we're going to have good business that day, it's like a blood transfusion. We need more races. Can we have one every week?"

Prime viewing spot

Harvest Moon owner Mark Smallwood, whose restaurant is on the circuit near the finish line, is a longtime bike enthusiast and plans to watch the race on his laptop as it approaches. With such a prime location, he said he would like to give priority for the choice outdoor patio seating to customers who come on bicycles with helmets that day.

But he said he expects the crowd to be a mix of hard-core fans such as himself and casual observers lured by Armstrong's presence.

"Lance Armstong adds a lot to people who normally aren't bike enthusiasts or bike racers," Smallwood said. "His overcoming cancer and almost rock star status with Americans takes it to a different level."

The Best Western Town House Lodge also sits on the race circuit, across from the Stanislaus County Library. The lodge has been sold out for weeks and is fielding three to four calls an hour asking for rooms.

Towns with experience as an Amgen stage finish can attest to the hoteliers' and restaurateurs' sunny outlook. Santa Rosa has been the Stage 1 finish since the race's inception four years ago. Raissa de la Rosa, economic development specialist and co-chairwoman of the Amgen local organizing committee, said occupancy in Santa Rosa's biggest hotels is at capacity every year. The downtown fills with people looking to eat.

"Without a doubt, every restaurant we've talked to that is open before and after the race, it's their best day for them. It's Christmas for them," she said.

She conservatively estimated that Santa Rosa took in $35,000 last year from sales and occupancy taxes because of the race.

Mullen, de la Rosa's Modesto counterpart, said the economic impact will trickle down into unexpected areas. Local businesses from caterers to equipment rentals for tents, chairs and street barriers to gas stations for the spectator and support vehicles to laundromats (because cyclists and their teams like to clean their uniforms between stages) are expected to see an uptick Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

Lining the circuit

Businesses along Kansas Avenue, where the race will enter the city, also are getting into the spirit even though most won't see the same sort of customer increase.

Ralph and Cheryl Gregory, owners of Kansas Avenue Auto Center, plan to stay open as the race whizzes by. They have invited their customers to bring lawn chairs to watch.

Tom Slater, owner of Slater's Home Furnishings along the downtown race circuit, expects the race to cut into his business. The road closings and congestion could scare away customers and will hamper deliveries. But he said the event is a good thing for the area.

"We will be finishing the race, people will be hooting and hollering. I think it'll be a fun time for downtown. I think it's a good thing for families," he said. "As far as the business is concerned, if it helps any of the businesses downtown, especially in this economic climate, it will eventually help us."

To accommodate some of the expected parking problems, Mullen said, the city will not enforce its time limits on street parking.

An international audience

The race will showcase the city to an international audience. Riders from 24 countries will participate with press from around the world reporting on their progress.

Couple that with the crowds and Mullen said the exposure for area groups and businesses could be priceless.

The free Lifestyles Festival and its accompanying Breakaway from Cancer Village will have more than 140 booths featuring 60 Modesto-area organizations and businesses.

There is no official after-party for the race, but a few venues have stepped up to hold events.

On Monday night, the State Theatre will screen the Oscar-winning college bike race film "Breaking Away," sponsored by the Modesto North Rotary.

Then on race day, the Copper Rhino will have an all-day party starting at noon featuring bands and raffles for bike giveaways with proceeds going to the Breakaway from Cancer Foundation. One block over, the Fat Cat Music House & Lounge will have the Tour of the Tour show featuring bike-related artwork and live, local music starting at 6 p.m.

"The message to Modestans is just be patient. I know it'll be a lot of gridlock and parking problems, but we're onstage," restaurateur Maisetti said. "Whenever you read these bad comments about Modesto, how it's a terrible place to live, just think about how many people will be able to sit on their front lawn and see Lance Armstrong tool by on his bike. It's great stuff for our town."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or 578-2284.

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