A boost from bikes

November 01, 2016

Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer

Image: George Bernstein

It’s a perfect sunny Saturday afternoon in July as waves of riders peel off Pearl Street in downtown Centralia, Washington and cruise onto the Centralia College campus. Ten thousand people ride Cascade Bicycle Club’s 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland Classic (STP) each year, and much of the route follows the winding rural roads of southwestern Washington. At almost exactly the 100-mile mark Centralia (population 16,753) makes for the perfect and most popular overnight rest and refueling stop. As a tent city rises on campus—outdoor camping is free—riders relax in the beer garden or pack the food court, where local vendors range from Big-T BBQ to the Quinoa King.

The old midpoint at Centralia’s Riverside Park offered a pleasant location along the Skookumchuck River with functional, if barebones, services. But as STP grew, so did the town’s frustration. “It upset a lot of the community when ten thousand riders came through and gobbed up small town traffic,” says Steve Ward, Vice President for Finance & Administration at Centralia College, and an early STP regular. “Riders didn’t like it because the location wasn’t straightforward and all the turns killed momentum for one-day riders.”

So, in 2002, after a nudge from Ward, Cascade and the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce agreed to reroute STP through the college to ease traffic congestion and improve the route’s flow for riders. To make it worth the college’s effort, Ward transformed the midpoint into a fundraiser for athletic scholarships, staffed by volunteers from the athletic department’s booster club. Small fees for towel service and showers, indoor camping, and a breakfast available starting at 4 a.m. on Sunday, raise $30,000 to $40,000 each year. “It’s really tough to raise money in a rural community, so if it wasn’t for this, we’d be having bake sales,” Ward says. Ward also created a festival atmosphere, adding live music, a beer garden and Tour de France viewing. “They had so many more amenities. It was a really good move for us,” says David Douglas, senior director of events & rides at Cascade.

Image: Joshua Putnam

The shift from park to college reflects a move of barely one mile. But that small distance means that riders can pitch their tents at the college and then walk just a few short blocks back to Centralia’s downtown to fill its locally-owned bars and restaurants. A notable feature of the money that riders and their supporters spend is that it is well-dispersed at every level of the area’s economy. From student athletes who receive scholarships to individuals who host riders in their homes to locally-owned restaurants to chain hotels booked by riders who forgo camping. “Area hotels were one hundred percent booked this year with STP riders, a twenty percent increase from last year. That’s in line with what other businesses are reporting,” says Michelle Turner, who manages events at the chamber of commerce. The chamber also arranges housing in private homes where seventy dollars gets riders a private room, a shower, and dinner and breakfast, which sold out this year.

Even businesses that don’t see many cyclists during STP enjoy its benefits. Anita Tidyman’s Berryfield’s Cafe serves breakfast and lunch, and is located right along the ride route, but closes before most riders make it into town. But thousands of family and friends arrive early in the day, preparing to cheer on and support riders, and they fill up many of the area businesses. “We get the families,” Tidyman says. “I do think [STP] affects business here in a positive way.”

It’s possible that the celebratory atmosphere has invited more supporters to join the party, though that’s not easily tracked. Still, business booms with STP and the town anticipates it. Right after this year’s STP, Ward says, “I couldn’t get out of the parking lot Monday morning because people grabbed me to talk about next year.”

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