Businesses, counties lay the groundwork for Ironman 2021

When organizers announced last December they were bringing the Ironman 70.3 triathlon to Frankfort, it took just minutes for the phone to start ringing off the hook at beachfront Harbor Lights Resort.

Within two hours, all accommodations at the resort – including motel rooms, suites and condominiums – were sold out.

“We’ve never had an event like that where it was announced and the phones just lit up until we had sold out,” said Steve Campbell, co-owner of the resort and the adjacent Marina at Harbor Lights. “The urgency … we had not seen before.”

Competitors head into the water for the swim leg at the IRONMAN 70.3 Traverse City on Aug. 25, 2019 in Traverse City. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for IRONMAN

It was just the beginning of impact for the small town on the shores of Lake Michigan. Frankfort is laying plans for a Sept. 12 event that could bring up to 3,000 athletes from around the country – and possibly the world – and as many as 4,000 to 6,000 spectators and supporters, depending on conditions with the pandemic.

For Frankfort and surrounding Benzie County, stretching through rural areas with only one stoplight in its borders, Ironman 70.3 Michigan is a big deal.

Joshua Mills, Frankfort city superintendent, said the event is an opportunity for businesses to gain revenue beyond the busy summer – “a significant shot in the arm in the shoulder season as we transition from summer to fall,” he said.

It could spark future return visits and even investment, he said, and it’s an event that complements the importance the region places on land and water recreational opportunities that promote wellness.

Traverse City Tourism estimated the 2019 Ironman 70.3 Traverse City had a $5 million to $10 million economic impact, and Mills said that could hold true this year for Benzie County. The impact will also spill over into other counties, including with lodging, said TC Tourism President and CEO Trevor Tkach.

“There’s an understanding that when you do something this significant, that it will have a ripple effect, and it will do more good than just in the space where you are having the event,” Tkach said.

Locally, there’s anticipation among businesses as well as challenge, particularly in providing food and drink to the thousands that will temporarily swell a city whose year-round population is just shy of 1,300.

Restaurants are looking at staffing options, community organizations are exploring meal possibilities, and food trucks may be brought in to supplement local fare to ensure that the experience Ironman athletes and visitors have is a good one.

Race week begins with official programming on Thursday and continues through Sunday afternoon after athletes cross the finish line downtown Frankfort. Competitors in the 70.3 mile race begin with a 1.2-mile swim through Frankfort harbor and Betsie Bay, hop onto bikes at the Open Space Park transition area for a 56-mile ride on sections of M-22, and return for a 13.1-mile run through parts of Frankfort and Elberta.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for IRONMAN

“We’re bringing these thousands of athletes into town to achieve some big goals here and do big things,” said Joel Gaff Jr., race director for Ironman 70.3 Michigan.

But he said athletes are also looking to do more than race; “they’re coming to get a little experience…soak up some of the local life, and amenities” like shopping, dining and attractions.

And well before September, Gaff and others said they expect athletes to do some reconnaissance in the area, scoping out courses and other aspects. The pre-event travel is an added benefit to businesses, said Andrew Johnson, president of the Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce and owner of Frankfort Insurance Agency Inc.

“This is not something that is just going to hit in one week,” he said. “They will come and visit before they come and race. They will come and ride. They will come and scout it out.”

Race week itself will bring early arrivals. Harbor Lights’ Campbell said Ironman staff staying at the resort will arrive Labor Day and athletes start coming in Wednesday. In all, Ironman-related guests will occupy about 60 of the resort’s 72 units.

Campbell said the event and its impact is “going to be challenging but exciting. The event itself is just the one day, but with all the people in town leading up to that, it’s going to bring a lot of exposure to our area.”

As of early May, the planning process was well underway. The city of Frankfort had approved a host venue agreement, the water and run courses had been posted online and local government approvals for the bike and run courses – collectively touching portions of Elberta and Gilmore, Crystal Lake, Lake and Platte townships – had been secured.

Mills is involved in myriad details – from coordination with and between police, fire, sheriff, Michigan State Police and emergency management personnel, to planning for parking and shuttle service and outdoor seating, to communicating and disseminating information to those who may be impacted. That includes residents, business owners and the fishermen and charter boat operators who typically ply the local waters for fall salmon fishing.

Mills said information on the event will go out to mariners and the charter boat industry and will be distributed at marinas and launches, and those fishing will need to head out prior to the morning swim’s start and return after its finish.

It’s just one aspect as he talks with businesses about the impact of the weekend and the day.

“We’ll be having … dialogue with all our businesses and encourage them to be prepared,” he said.

At the Hotel Frankfort & Restaurant, owner Judy Remmert said Ironman can build Frankfort’s and Benzie County’s image as a tourism destination. She has a waiting list after selling out the hotel’s 17 guest rooms within an hour of Ironman announcement, giving her full occupancy at a post-Labor Day time when she would normally have some empty rooms.

“September is usually a month where we get a breather, after going nonstop in July and August. We will not get that breather” this year, but that’s a good thing, Remmert said.

However, staffing in her restaurant during the event is a concern.

“A lot of the teenagers that work for us have left to return to school,” she said.

At nearby Stormcloud Brewing Co., co-owner Rick Schmitt said his peak summer staff of 70 to 75 people usually drops to 45 to 50 after Labor Day, and he has recruited friends who will help out on Ironman weekend in a variety of roles like washing glasses, busing tables and assisting the host.

“Currently I have eight to 10 friends that have blocked it on their calendar for that weekend,” he said.

Schmitt said at both the downtown pub and Stormcloud’s production facility and tasting room at Frankfort’s entrance, he plans to add tents to provide weather protection for patrons. And, he said, “we’ll increase our hours at our production facility, and maximize our normal hours at the pub on Main Street.”

Beyond that it will be business as usual, ramped up.

“We want to be firing on all cylinders with our menu and servers and not try to change something, and make sure we do it as well as we possibly can,” Schmitt said.

Gaff said Ironman will communicate closely with restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and others, “letting them know what to expect.”

One thing to know: Coffee will be in high demand.

“Our athletes and their fans love coffee. Our whole team will be drinking coffee too,” Gaff said. “Especially on race morning, athletes are going to want a cup of coffee, and a second or third cup too. So the coffee shops should plan on being well-stocked on race week.”

Food trucks are a possibility, he said, “not to take away business from any of those existing restaurants or businesses,” but to “help buffer the demand for food.”

As for the race routes, Gaff said communication to all impacted residents and businesses will be paramount. He said there will be an informational campaign, including mailers, with details such as where the courses are, when athletes will be coming through and when an area will be most affected.

Gaff said steps are being taken to address concerns over road disruptions that arose with the Traverse City event. For example, along some of the more populated portions of the bike course, there will be a designated vehicle lane next to the bike lanes.

Gaff, a Traverse City native who splits his time between TC and Portland, Ore., was race director in the 2019 event and said “there was a lot of learning that happened … that we’re taking into account as we plan for 2021 event in Frankfort.”

Kyle Orr, who with wife Kelly owns Riverside Canoe Trips along the Platte River and M-22, said he knows he will lose business on race day when the bikers ride past. He said there will be limited, one-way vehicle traffic on the road in front of Riverside and the mid-morning/early afternoon time frame the partial closure will hit is a peak time for fall canoe and kayak rentals.

But Orr said he’s also thinking about the greater good for the community.

“From my business standpoint, I know it’s going to hurt us,” Orr said. “On the other hand, I’m hoping it’s really good for Benzie County.”

Also looking toward the event is Crystal Mountain. The resort offers up 1,500 acres of roads, trails and terrain at varied elevations, along with three pools, a fitness center and spa – features it hopes will appeal to Ironman athletes.

Sammie Lukaskiewicz, vice president of marketing and communications, said reservations for Ironman weekend “are really healthy” and the resort is considering possible menu offerings with the athletes in mind, in its restaurant and onsite market.

Chris and Jim MacInnes, Crystal Mountain’s president and CEO, penned a letter of support after the Frankfort site selection and said “holding such a prestigious and globally known event in Benzie County becomes a fantastic and lasting highlight for the entire area, its businesses and our fellow residents on a national scale; and will further showcase our communities as safe and fun tourism, recreation and sporting destinations year-round.

“The event will also help provide a much-needed economic boost for the area at a time when businesses like ours need it the most, and have an impact on our hotels, restaurants and the nonprofit groups who will help work and fund-raise from the event.”

Gaff said the Ironman Foundation gives back to charitable organizations who help out during race week, in the form of grants for which they can apply. He said the foundation in 2019 gave $26,000 to Traverse City area nonprofits and is looking at “a similar-ish number” this year for Benzie organizations.

In addition, Traverse City Tourism will again organize a charity challenge to raise money for groups. The challenge generated some $14,000 in 2019, including more than $8,200 raised by TC Tourism board chair Justin Mortier, participating in his first Ironman. Mortier competed on behalf of Munson Manor Hospitality House, which offers accommodations to out-of-town patients, traveling family members and caregivers.

It was an opportunity to give to an organization much like the Ronald McDonald House in Grand Rapids, which housed and supported Mortier and his wife Jessica over five years ago when their son was born non-responsive at Munson Medical Center and taken to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital where he spent a month.

“Through a very difficult time in our lives … Ronald McDonald House became a tremendous place of support for us,“ Mortier said. “It was very easy for me to gravitate to Munson Manor for all the same reasons.”

He is managing partner of LaBelle Management, a property management company whose local properties include Traverse City’s Grand Beach and Sugar Beach Resort Hotels, Baywatch Resort, Beach Haus Resort and Brookside Village Apartments, and All Seasons Resort in Kalkaska.

Mortier hopes to support Munson Manor again this year and said he’s been training and enjoys the triathlon lifestyle. It’s a pursuit made possible with the support of his wife and four children, from pre-dawn training through all it takes to be an Ironman athlete.

“It is 100% a family participation,” he said.

Gaff said athletes of all abilities, backgrounds and ages typically participate, from the minimum age of 18 to mid to upper 70s.

Assisting in the Frankfort event will be around 35 to 45 Ironman staff on-site, and 1,000 to 1,500 volunteers that are indispensable to operations. Their involvement includes stocking items like drinks, fruit and energy bars at aid stations along bike and run courses, directing athletes at various course points, and manning stand-up paddleboards and water craft to ensure swimmers’ safety. Volunteers also help to keep the venue clean, including the Ironman village that houses registration, a merchandise tent and an area where vendors and partners can showcase goods.

“Without the help of this army … it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to make this event happen,” Gaff said. “They’re really the lifeblood of the event.”

As plans proceed, there is still the reality of the pandemic and how it could affect attendance and even cancellation, as it did in 2020.

Gaff said Ironman, which continues to put on races all over the world, has with input from the World Health Organization created a playbook to keep events safe for athletes and all who attend. Details range from spacing of facilities and enhanced cleaning and sanitation to athlete screening and masking, including masks in outdoor areas and until they enter the water, Gaff said.

He and others remain optimistic the event will take place.

“Anything is possible, and we use that in the more positive sense,” Gaff said. “We of course don’t know where we are going to be next week, or in September, in terms of the COVID pandemic and rules and regulations.”

Tkach agrees.

“I think we’ve gone through this whole process with eyes wide open. I think all of us at the table recognize that there’s a possibility this event might not happen. Or come out modified,” he said. “But we’re planning as if it would happen, at full capacity.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.