Win Gruening: Juneau’s Ironman doesn’t cross finish line

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By WIN GRUENING

“Anything is Possible” is a registered trademark of the Ironman Triathlon competition, capturing the challenge of one of the most difficult single-day sporting events in the world.  In that spirit, the Juneau community whole-heartedly embraced the opportunity to hold Alaska’s first-ever Ironman sanctioned race last August.

Despite Juneau’s remote venue, small population, and lack of amenities, Travel Juneau, the city’s travel and convention bureau, and an enthusiastic group of boosters and volunteers worked hard to secure the bid, believing, indeed, anything was possible. They also felt that Juneau’s spectacular scenery, unique location, and community support would compensate for any deficiencies.

When announced a full year before the event that Juneau had secured the bid, the city celebrated the victory with a splashy press conference on the shores of Auke Lake, the site of the triathlon’s 2.4-mile swim.

That the event ultimately wasn’t as successful as hoped is not a reflection on Juneau’s effort or commitment but rather on other factors.  Although the community welcomes over a million cruise passengers annually, it soon discovered that hosting a substantial influx of independent visitors has its own challenges.

The signed 3-year contract with the Ironman Group required Juneau to pay $50,000 in 2022 with the possibility of hosting additional competitions in 2023 and 2024. This was to be offset by an anticipated $7-8 million lift to the local economy with the expected arrival of 1,300-1,600 participants plus families and friends who would stay for up to a week or longer.

Initially, this all seemed workable but as the event approached, problems began to surface.

Before arrival, competitors had already invested up to $3,000, including an $800 registration fee and airfare.  Then they learned how much it would cost for sleeping accommodations. Early registrants snagged reasonably-priced rooms but later, many found that hotel rooms had doubled in price and air-bnb’s were going for $1,000/night.  After available rooms disappeared, some complained that their original reservations were canceled and re-listed at higher rates. 

Travel Juneau suggested residents offer rooms in their homes or rent their houses to fill the gap. A Facebook page was launched to inform contestants when rooms or homes became available.

Eventually, the participant base shrank to about 850 competitors, almost half what was originally expected.

It also became evident that transportation logistics were lacking. Taxis were scarce and visitors soon discovered there were no rental cars left available in town. Participants didn’t have a way to get their bikes to and from the airport. A local company, Cycle Alaska, stepped in and organized a bike transport operation to assist.

On the day of the race, the weather was not ideal. Due to low water temperature in Auke Lake, the swim leg was delayed and shortened. Rain and cold weather plagued runners and bikers during the race.

Obviously, some of this was beyond the control of the host city or race sponsors. But, as a community, it seemed Juneau promised more than it could deliver.

In early December, Ironman officials announced the cancellation of Ironman Alaska in Juneau for 2023 and 2024, citing impacts from global inflation and economic pressure.

While officials also complimented Juneau as a host city, few people believe that the reasons cited were the only considerations.

It’s tough to admit that your community may have fallen short in staging an event like this. However, it should be instructive in how to plan for the future. Every community has assets and liabilities.  Juneau is no exception.

Juneau boasts world-class scenery and outdoor opportunities, a diverse and welcoming community, and thriving arts and cultural organizations.

However, ways to access Juneau are few and expensive, independent visitor accommodations and amenities are limited, and weather can be problematic. 

A realistic recognition of these limitations should be considered whenever city leaders contemplate expending public resources or make infrastructure investments to attract significant numbers of out-of-town guests.  This is a point worth remembering in light of the Juneau Assembly’s continuing effort to fund an expansion of its convention center that may cost in excess of $77 million.

“Anything is possible” is an optimistic catch-phrase but it’s not a strategy. Scaling events and public buildings to better match a community’s size and capabilities will be what determines their success or failure in the future.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks

8 COMMENTS

  1. I suppose this result has no bearing on the city government buying a tram in Europe, paying to have it dismantled and shipped to Juneau, to be erected on the city ski slope – for a total cost that in the end will approach $20 million. It’s a hard-headed Assembly that wants to spend, spend, spend; tax, tax, tax.

  2. I wanted it to succeed, but was skeptical from the start. Juneau has stars in its eyes, but these eyes have cataracts.

    Anyone who’s been here any length of time has a story of having a deal with someone only to have it be canceled in favor of a better offer. Especially regarding housing.

    Juneau really believes the scenery can make up for the lack of amenities. But unless you’re homeless under a bridge, you can’t sleep in the scenery.

    Trying to schedule a decent sized event during tourist season was stupid. Tourism taxes us to our limits as is.

    Until Juneau gets ahold of the Airbnb issue, this will just get worse. Otherwise short sightedness will bit us in the backside.

    In theory a good idea. In reality, not so much.

    • Trying to schedule an outdoor activity in Juneau was their first mistake. Why isn’t travel Juneau being held responsible or at the least publicly replying to this?

      • Your name must be Karen.

        This is asinine. Travel Juneau is responsible for attracting people here, not for the weather. Anyone with a computer and a brain can do as fast wiki search to learn Juneau is in a rainforest and Alaska is cold.

        Not were they the sole drivers of this event. Iron Man is more culpable for not doin their homework. CBJ for supporting this.

  3. Well, the plan is to put the new city offices up on the ridge above eagle crest and they needed a way to get staff up and down….

  4. This was poorly planned from the start and reality never kicked in. It wasn’t just the competitors that suffered. Our local tourism industry suffered as their customers could not find overnight housing prior to departing to lodges, cruises, or other destinations. Failure to both sides. ’23 and ’24 were cancelled and for good reason. Maybe a lesson will be learned from this fiasco.

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