Tough Mudder waffling on promotion promise

Despite being given $80,000 in Santa Rosa taxpayer money as an incentive to stage its military-style obstacle course near Milton, Tough Mudder Inc. is apparently reneging on its contractual agreement to host a pre-event party.

County tourism officials and commissioners thought they had negotiated the for-profit, New York-based company’s financial support for a party on the night before Tough Mudder’s April 9-10 event.

The intent of the party, which was suggested by District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson, is to market Santa Rosa County beaches and other tourist attractions to Tough Mudder participants who visit from out of this area.

But now, less than a month before Tough Mudder’s scheduled weekend, the company has declined to put up any money for such a party and has indicated that it won’t.  The business signed a contract in January with District 5 Commissioner Lane Lynchard which specifies that it will “host a pre-party in the County on April 8, 2016.”

Reached by phone in New York City, a Tough Mudder spokeswoman told the Navarre Press she is unfamiliar with any Santa Rosa County party arrangements in which the company may be involved and would look into the matter.

Some area leisure industry leaders are pushing back. “Host means you pay for everything,” Jack Sanborn, a member of the volunteer, watchdog Tourist Development Council told the Navarre Press. “It would be fair for Tough Mudder to put in $5,000,” said Sanborn, owner of Adventures Unlimited, an outdoor recreation company in Milton.

No follow-through

Sanborn said county officials should press Tough Mudder to honor its financial commitment. But the contract, called a Community Support Agreement, doesn’t specify an amount for which the company is responsible. Nor does the pact define the word “host.”

“What can we do about this?” said Liz Horton, a TDC member and Wyndham Resorts marketing executive who is trying to organize a party for Tough Mudder visitors at Juana’s Pagodas in Navarre on April 8.

Williamson’s idea for a solution, rather than to pursue redress from Tough Mudder, is to use yet more public funds to pay for the party. He told TDC members last week: “I think that we have money that’s in the budget… in the (Tourist Development Office).”

Williamson, who last fall led the discussions that resulted in his commission colleagues’ vote to offer a sizable financial inducement to Tough Mudder, said “If it doesn’t work out this time it’s not a deal breaker.”

The deal gets a closer look

The $80,000 that commissioners, with little discussion, voted to give Tough Mudder is bed-tax revenue derived from the county’s fees on lodging room stays. In doing so they effectively overruled the Tourist Development Council’s recommendation to limit taxpayer funding of Tough Mudder to $20,000.

Commissioners also voted to apply for a $30,000 grant from the state-funded nonprofit Florida Sports Foundation in Tallahassee. But the foundation decided on a grant of just $12,000, which the county must match. That money is available only as a reimbursement after the county files an economic-impact statement about how well Tough Mudder did in attracting out-of-state visitors.

The study that Tough Mudder supplied after last March’s event in Santa Rosa County contained financial estimates that are still being questioned by TDC members.

Sanborn reiterated those concerns at last Thursday’s council meeting. “I’ve done some investigation,” he said, and found that 50 percent of the attendees’ zip codes last year, according to data supplied by Tough Mudder, “were within an hour’s drive of us.” Thus he echoed other council members’ skepticism about the company’s assertion that “more than 58 percent of the people” rented lodging accommodations in Santa Rosa County.

Looking on the bright side

Nevertheless, Sanborn expressed optimism about Tough Mudder: “I think it’s a wonderful thing that’s happening for Santa Rosa County. My concerns were with the negotiating….” Sanborn also told Williamson that he hopes that if the county seeks a deal to bring Tough Mudder back in 2017, “somebody that has a stake sits with you at the negotiating table.“

He underscored the views previously expressed by some area lodging managers who say that Tough Mudder’s impact this April will be unclear because it’s scheduled during the college spring break period, when many guest rooms will be occupied anyway.

Tough Mudder doesn’t contribute any of its $109-a-ticket revenue for the event to the county or to charity. The company encourages charities such as the Wounded Warrior Project to raise money through its events and promotes the Jacksonville nonprofit on its website.

The company has estimated that it will sell at least 4,500 tickets for April 9-10.

Such sales estimates are reassuring to county officials.

When Lynchard was asked by a reporter last week about Tough Mudder’s lack of cooperation on the party it agreed to host, he said, “I don’t know of any issues.  Regardless of how you spin it, this is going to be a huge event for Santa Rosa County.”

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