Tough Mudder deal criticized by tourism leaders

Santa Rosa County officials now concede that there was no effort to negotiate before agreeing to pay Tough Mudder Inc. a $110,000 subsidy in return for staging its military-style endurance event near Milton next April.

Both the inducement amount and the New York-based, for-profit company’s estimate of the economic benefits resulting from its first event held here last March are drawing criticism from some tourism industry leaders.

“Just another example of our money being sucked out of here,” said Laurie Gallup, owner of Navarre Properties Inc., a lodging reservation company.

An economic impact study ordered up by Tough Mudder was the main factor considered by Santa Rosa County Commissioners last month when they voted in favor of underwriting the event scheduled for next April 9 and 10.

District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson, who rallied support for Tough Mudder among his elected colleagues, revealed to the county’s Tourist Development Council in a Dec. 1 meeting that he didn’t seek a better deal with the company.

Volunteering taxpayer dollars

“Perhaps we could have gotten them without giving them any money,” said Gallup, speaking to Williamson at the meeting.

“I didn’t negotiate with Tough Mudder. I talked with Tough Mudder and told them that I was one vote in five,” replied Williamson. He said his discussions with the company focused on gaining its cooperation with Santa Rosa hoteliers, and didn’t include any back-and-forth about the fee that the county would pay.

As reported in the Navarre Press on Dec. 3, Tough Mudder agreed to hold its events during the past year and next in at least three communities—Fulton County, Ga., Bastrop County, Texas and Galletin County, Ky.—all without being paid in public funds.

Williamson didn’t immediately respond to a reporter’s phone calls seeking comment on the lack of taxpayer dollars required by Tough Mudder in the three locales checked by the Navarre Press.

Santa Rosa County Tourism Director Julie Morgan said the communities cited by the Navarre Press are too small to be compared with our area. Further, she asserted that those locales have small tourism budgets, if any.

Morgan said Brevard County has hosted a Tough Mudder in the past and “to my understanding” the Space Coast Tourism Office in partnership with the City of Palm Bay paid $140,000 in cash and in-kind incentives. “I would prefer to look at them as they are a coastal destination as we are,” she added.

Morgan’s boss, Santa Rosa County Economic Development Director Shannon Ogletree also backed Williamson’s recommendation to pay Tough Mudder $80,000 from tourist bed taxes and to apply for a $30,000 grant from the Florida Sports Foundation. Obtaining the grant would require Santa Rosa County to spend $60,000 in advertising Tough Mudder.

As evidence of Tough Mudder’s economic value, Morgan said the Pensacola Sports Association has been a possible competitor for hosting the event.  She said that the nonprofit group’s executive director, Ray Palmer, told her that Tough Mudder “has been calling constantly,” implying the company sought to partner with Escambia County instead of Santa Rosa.

But Palmer told Navarre Press he had never recruited Tough Mudder, and had spoken with the company mainly to suggest locales in Northwest Florida other than Escambia – including Santa Rosa.

“I don’t care where they play,” Palmer said.

He said Escambia hotels and restaurants will benefit from the Tough Mudder event in Santa Rosa without his county’s helping subsidize it.

Ogletree wrote a six-paragraph memo to county commissioners in support of the $110,000 subsidy on Nov. 6. In the last sentence he mentioned that the Tourism Development Council had voted to pay Tough Mudder only $20,000 and also to apply for the $30,000 grant.

Economic malarkey

Both Williamson and Ogletree have cited an economic impact study generated by a San Diego State University faculty member, based on a survey of 712 attendees at the one-day Tough Mudder event last March, which estimated its economic impact on Santa Rosa County at $6.1 million

“It was total malarkey,” said T.J. Goulet, a marketing consultant for the Hidden Creek Club. “Even if every hotel was full and every condo was full, and even if every restaurant in Pace and Milton was full, it would be hard to get to ($6.1 million.).” Others agree.

“There’s no way Tough Mudder brought in that kind of money,” Gallup said at the Dec. 1 TDC meeting.

Williamson didn’t defend the Tough Mudder economic impact estimate. He acknowledged to the TDC on Dec. 1 that Santa Rosa hotels weren’t “at capacity” during Tough Mudder last March. Further, he posited that after the event next April, county officials “will dig down a little deeper” into the company’s assertions about the benefits it yields for other businesses.

To be sure, the BOCC’s vote to pay $110,000 to Tough Mudder isn’t etched in stone. “There is no contract yet,” Morgan pointed out. “They are drafting one that will come to us for review, and the county attorney and ultimately, to the BOCC.”

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