After attracting 4,861 paying participants to its military-style obstacle course in Milton during April, New York-based Tough Mudder Inc. has decided against returning next year to stage another event.
“After hosting two successful Tough Mudder Gulf Coast events in 2015 & 2016, we have decided not to return to Santa Rosa County in 2017. As a company we are committed to bringing our events to new regions and communities whenever possible, and we will be exploring new venues to bring the event in 2017,” said Jodie Kovacs, the company’s spokeswoman, in an email to the Navarre Press.
The company’s 2017 schedule already has more than 20 events set, starting in March. The early part of its annual season, which typically ends in the fall, features such major markets as New Orleans, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
This year’s Santa Rosa County participants, who typically paid in the range of $80 to $100 apiece, numbered far fewer than Tough Mudder’s public projection that the crowds might well reach 18,000.
In fact, despite a heavier marketing campaign than the one-day Tough Mudder in Santa Rosa during 2015, the total participants and spectators was about the same, according to figures furnished by the company.
“They failed somewhere,” said Jack Sanborn, a member of the volunteer Tourist Development Council who owns Outdoor Adventures Unlimited, a recreation company based in north Santa Rosa County.
Mixed local support
District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson, who represents county government on the advisory council, briefed the TDC last Thursday on Tough Mudder’s decision. He said the company endured a cool reception from some council members who questioned the commission’s decision to award the for-profit company an incentive of $80,000 derived from county bed taxes. In doing so, the commission overruled the TDC’s recommendation that Tough Mudder receive only $20,000.
Some TDC members have criticized Williamson for not making their reasoning clear to his commission colleagues, who also voted to give Tough Mudder $30,000 in grants from the Florida Sports Foundation. The nonprofit group based in Tallahassee later reduced that grant to about, $10,000, citing a shortfall in state funding.
Williamson also blamed Tough Mudder’s pull out from Santa Rosa County on coverage by this newspaper, specifically an article last December that documented that three communities on the company’s 2016 schedule didn’t pay any financial incentives to host the events. Government officials in Texas, Georgia and Kentucky told a reporter they don’t pay for-profit companies that stage tourist-related entertainment events.
Tough Mudder’s Kovacs said that Santa Rosa County officials hadn’t asked whether the company would host its event in Milton without a financial incentive. She said the company often receives such inducements upon request, however, and that Santa Rosa’s fee was below Tough Mudder’s typical stimulus.
Kovacs added in her email last week, “We have enjoyed working closely with Santa Rosa County and its local businesses & stakeholders, and we may explore the opportunity to return to Santa Rosa County in 2018 or beyond.”
Questions about value
Some area tourist industry leaders are dubious about the benefits of hosting Tough Mudder despite economic impact studies commissioned by the company after this year’s event and the one in 2015.
The 2016 study by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center, a business research arm of the school, used information provided by the company to estimate a total economic impact for Santa Rosa County of $1.5 million.
But the study didn’t determine hotel room occupancy rates in the area during Tough Mudder, and Santa Rosa County bed tax collections in April rose a disappointing 8 percent–$14,820–from the same period in 2015. That broke a string of double-digit monthly increases dating back to August 2015.
What’s more, that report showed that only 13 percent of Tough Mudder participants who stayed overnight did so in the Navarre area, where more than half the county’s bed taxes are generated. That prompted TDC member Liz Horton, a marketing executive at Wyndham Vacation Rentals, to call the results “decent, but not what we were promised.”
Still, the venue that Tough Mudder utilized to construct its obstacle course, Jeff Ates Ranch, will be available to the company for another three years by contract with the owner, according to Kyle Holley, a TDC board member who led the volunteer effort to help Tough Mudder in north Santa Rosa County.
And if Tough Mudder doesn’t pursue its option on the property, a similar company might. Holley said at least one Tough Mudder competitor, which he didn’t identify, has inquired about using the land. Two other companies, including Miami-based BattleFrog LLC and Spartan Race Inc. in Framingham, Mass., are expanding nationally.
Still, if Santa Rosa County is to again host a for-profit military style obstacle course, some other TDC members want the financial incentive taken off the table or sharply reduced.
“Tough Mudder made hundreds of thousands of dollars here and all that money went with the company back to New York,” Sanborn said. “The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay them too.”
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