Commissioner raises concerns with Tough Mudder

Following doubts expressed by area tourism leaders on the value of the Tough Mudder Inc. military-style endurance event scheduled for next April, District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson is stepping in before Santa Rosa County signs a contract with the New York company.

In a Dec. 3 email to Kate Fitzpatrick, a Tough Mudder senior director, Williamson wrote: “Not all Santa Rosa County tourism stakeholders share my optimism” about the “return on investment this event provides for our tourism economy.”

Williamson told the Navarre Press that after he recommended to his fellow commissioners on Nov. 9 that the county pay $80,000 in taxpayer money and seek a $30,000 state grant to subsidize Tough Mudder’s for-profit competition scheduled April 9-10, he learned that the company is also asking area hoteliers to offer discounts on rooms and pay it 15 percent commissions on those reserved by participants and spectators.

“I was surprised they’re asking for that,” Williamson said last week.

His memo requested that Tough Mudder representatives be prepared to justify their requests of hoteliers and to back up assertions made in an economic impact study the company commissioned after its one-day event held near Milton last March.

Tourism leaders want better deal

“I’m glad Rob is keeping his eyes on Tough Mudder and reaching out to them for answers,” said Liz Horton, director of Wyndham Vacation Rentals in Navarre Beach and a member of the volunteer Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Council. “I too am in utter dismay that the company would ask for a percentage from accommodation partners.”

She added, “With the grant and Santa Rosa County’s support, Tough Mudder should be more than happy and asking us what we need.”

Williamson’s memo to Tough Mudder supported Horton’s view: “I’m not sure asking for discounts and percentages of overall revenue is the best way to encourage lodging partners to engage with TM.”

Further, he said, “Some believe, and I agree, our lodging partners should be rewarded and receive a better deal than neighboring counties, considering SRC is investing over $100,000 in the event.”

Kyle Holley, a Tourist Development Council member, said of Williamson’s voicing concerns to Tough Mudder, “I presumed from earlier meetings the commissioner and staff would be working through a detailed partnership with Tough Mudder.  If now is the only time left to do that, of course every effort should be made to serve all parties involved from the Tough Mudder customers, to lodging facilities, to local businesses, the company itself and our County.”

He added,  “I absolutely believe in and support any effort to develop the best possible deal for our local bed tax collectors; Navarre has beautiful beaches with many condominium rentals that may be hard for the Tough Mudder visitors to find.  If our County and Tough Mudder can develop and fund a strategy that will fill them up, we have a responsibility to do it.”

Fitzpatrick and other Tough Mudder representatives are scheduled to meet with the TDC, on which Williamson is the county commission’s appointed representative, today (Dec 17).

Show us the money

Also raising concerns is the accuracy of an economic impact study ordered up by Tough Mudder from a sports business professor at San Diego State University using data the company supplied and paid for with $4,000 in Santa Rosa County tourist tax dollars.

“Malarkey,” is how the report is described by T.J. Goulet, marketing consultant for the Hidden Creek golf club and a member of the TDC’s South End Committee.

Goulet expressed doubt at the study’s assertion that roughly 6,000 visitors attended last March’s Tough Mudder here and generated an overall economic impact of about $6.1 million for Santa Rosa County.

That report failed to pinpoint in which hotels or rented condominiums the out-of-town visitors stayed. Goulet and other TDC members assert that many of the guests stayed in Escambia County hotels located near Interstate 10 and that few took rooms in the Navarre Beach area, which produces up to an estimated 75 percent of Santa Rosa’s bed taxes.

Although Williamson previously relied on the study as evidence that the county’s subsidy for Tough Mudder will gain a significant return on investment, he wrote to the company on Dec. 3 that some TDC members question the document’s validity: “Specifically, how much of the $6 million impact was SRC specific? Please do your best to quantify the economic benefit this event will provide specific to Santa Rosa County.”

Williamson wrote his Dec. 3 memo on the same day this newspaper reported that county and city governments in Georgia, Texas and Kentucky paid no taxpayer funds in return for hosting Tough Mudder events during the past year nor those scheduled in those locales during 2016.

Some TDC board members have complained that the County Commissioners voted to provide Tough Mudder with $110,000 despite the volunteer panel’s previous and unanimous vote to give the company only $20,000. The commissioners weren’t made aware of the TDC’s reasoning and voted with little discussion.

But Commission Chairman Lane Lynchard, who learned this week that some TDC members and Commissioner Rob Williamson have raised questions about the event’s true economic impact on Santa Rosa Couny, told a reporter in an email: “If the rest of the board wants to revisit the Tough Mudder agreement I’ll be open to the discussion.  I still think the impact of this single event is greater than any other event we have in the county.  It would be a shame to lose something of this magnitude.  Other communities provide incentives to land events such as this, and it seems to fit with what TDC funding is designed to do.”

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