One Hill Of A Good Time

July 15, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The town of San Luis Obispo is located among four mountain ranges in California’s Central Coast. The topography ranges from steep, rugged ridges and mountains dropping to rolling hills, to stream terraces and gently sloping valley floors.

Likewise, the picturesque Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania formed over millions of years as sections of limestone plateau eroded to create some of the most dramatic elevation rise-and-fall in the United States.

These are the kinds of places that set mountain bikers’ hearts aflutter.

So, apparently, is Grand Rapids.

This weekend, Pando Winter Sports Park in Cannon Township will host the second event in this summer’s Jeep King of the Mountain series — ostensibly the world championship of professional mountain biking.

Of all the rugged, inclined plains in the world, how did the event’s organizers pick a diminutive ski area in West Michigan?

The organizers chose Grand Rapids because it’s full of nice people who don’t own enough Jeeps.

The mountain bike race, sponsored by the Jeep division of DaimlerChrysler Corp., was arranged to coincide with a promotional event Jeep had already scheduled in Grand Rapids, according to Henry Schneidman. He is the president of Eclipse Television, the sports marketing and video production firm that is putting on the July 23 event. After Jeep scheduled its eight “Camp Jeep On the Road” events across the country, Schneidman and his firm decided which site would make the best match for the bicycle race.

“Our goal is to bring this world professional mountain bike event to a market that has characteristics — or the population has attributes — consistent with what we’re doing. (We look for) a market that, to some degree, doesn’t get major events every day, so they’re not jaded,” he said. “A lot of our decisions are based on interest in the market in mountain biking, which Grand Rapids has. It’s known for being an active cycling community — an active fitness, healthy, outdoor-lifestyle community.”

Those attributes fall in line with the projected image of Jeep ownership. DaimlerChrysler markets the Jeep brand by pairing it with a lifestyle of rugged individualism: a carefree attitude, a strong spirit of independence and the spontaneity to jump in the Wrangler, leave the chores behind and head out for a weekend in the wilderness. Evidently, the citizens of West Michigan have more of that spirit than their counterparts in Atlanta, Buffalo, Denver, Houston, San Diego and Virginia Beach, as Grand Rapids was chosen over those cities to host of the event.

In working with the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Travel Michigan, Schneidman said his group “found a welcome mat.”

“And that welcome mat goes a long way in bringing a program like ours to a city,” he said. “That’s key because there are obviously a lot of cities that can fill the first criteria (of having an interest in the sport).”

“We could have held the race in Vail, Colo.,” Schneidman said. “But instead of holding the event in a mountain resort, part of our strategy is to bring it to the city. Urbanize it to a certain degree. Make it an event that people can wake up in the morning and say, ‘What should we do today? Hey, there’s this world professional mountain biking event. Let’s go see what it’s about,’ and not have to drive five hours.”

After Grand Rapids was chosen as the host city, Schneidman began looking for the right site. He said that Pando was exactly what his company was looking for. It was the right size. It had the right mix of terrain. It was close to downtown Grand Rapids. It provided a clean slate for his crew of dirt artists.

Right now, Eclipse Television personnel are at Pando preparing for the event. Schneidman said that he typically buys around $10,000 worth of dirt to set the unique Y-shaped mountain bike course, as well as the extensive off-road course where visitors will test drive the sponsor’s SUVs.

This event will provide West Michigan with three things, according to Schneidman. First, it will offer a day’s worth of family entertainment. Second, it will have a positive economic impact. Third, as the event is shown on national television later this summer, it will promote West Michigan as a world-class destination for outdoor sports and a healthy lifestyle.

“I’ll bet you that a lot of people outside of Michigan don’t really know what Grand Rapids is about,” he said. Seeing the community portrayed in a positive light, those people may gain a favorable impression of the area. “And they’ll say, ‘What a cool community. Maybe that’s a place we want to invest in, move to, what have you. And I think that’s probably why we’ve got support from the state economic development folks.”

According to Janet Korn, marketing director for the CVB, the publicity will probably be more beneficial to the area than the financial effects.

It’s going to get some pretty good coverage,” she said. “And it’s going to get coverage for an activity that people around that country might not necessarily know that this is a great place for.”

Korn doesn’t expect a huge economic impact from the event, judging by the number of hotel rooms she helped the organizers book. There are only about 125 individuals associated with the competition and the production of the event, most of whom will only be around for the weekend.

Although the race and corresponding activities will not likely draw a large interstate crowd, Schneidman expects to attract between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors. Because the event is free and open to the public, he doesn’t have any way to offer a scientific attendance forecast, but he said that past events have drawn several thousand fans. He and a public relations agent have been promoting the event extensively through local media and regional and state tourism bureaus. The first race in the series was just aired on WOOD-TV8 last weekend, potentially building more interest.

Those thousands of people will need to eat. They’ll need gas in their cars. Some of them might choose to buy a new mountain bike or biking clothing as a result of their visit to the race. Schneidman said that there is no scientific way to judge the economic impact of the event, other than to say it will be positive. Although he would not venture a guess as to the larger financial benefits to the area, Schneidman did say that his company would spend “tens of thousands” of dollars at local building supply companies to create the off-road terrain park necessary for the event. 

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