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Fargo Marathon’s return to spring poised to bring millions of dollars to metro area

As the Fargo Marathon makes its return to the spring calendar, the event is expected to account for millions of dollars in direct visitor spending for the city. Kali Mork of the F-M Convention and Visitors Bureau figured the races could bring in between $1.4 million and $2.5 million.

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The Fargo Marathon means millions in direct visitor spending for the metro area.
Illustration by Troy Becker
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FARGO — One of the Fargo area’s marquee annual events will be making its return to normal next week and it’s primed to bring millions of visitor dollars with it.

The Essentia Health Fargo Marathon is returning to its standard schedule for the first time since 2019, with five days of events packing the metro calendar from Monday, May 16, to Saturday, May 21. The event was scrapped altogether in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed back to late September the following year for the same reason.

The return to standard operating procedure is a welcome sign for both organizers and business owners across the metro area. While the marathon isn’t the single-biggest annual event in the city — that’d be July’s eight- to ten-day USA Wrestling Junior and 16U National Championships — it still means millions of dollars in direct visitor spending for the Fargo area, Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau told The Forum.

'A variety of factors'

Calculating direct visitor spending is an undertaking that relies on several pieces of data, Mork explained.

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The process began several years ago when the F-M CVB consulted with a local research firm to devise a new formula to calculate direct visitor spending. That metric is used over the more ubiquitous “economic impact” because it is more conservative and uses fewer multipliers, Mork said.

The biggest component, Mork continued, is taking ZIP codes from all of the marathon’s participants. The formula then accounts for how far away the racers live, whether or not they stayed overnight and in how many races they participated. “There’s a variety of factors that come into play when we calculate it,” Mork said.

While the exact direct visitor spending for this year’s marathon won’t be known until after the fact, Mork believed the numbers will fall between 2019’s and 2021’s numbers.

In 2019, the last fully normal marathon, direct visitor spending from the marathon was $2.5 million. That value informed estimates that 2020’s cancelation cost the city millions of dollars .

The Fargo Sanford Marathon's cancellation cost Fargo an estimated $2.5 million in "direct visitor spending", Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Athletic Commission said. Mork also estimated a loss of $500,000 for every postponed North Dakota State football game.

In 2021, with the number of participants down, direct visitor spending was calculated to be $1.4 million. “There were still a lot of COVID impacts happening during the course of last year,” Mork explained.

It’s all contingent on how many racers turn up, but Mork felt confident that direct visitor spending would be up from 2021. As to whether or not it could top 2019’s value, that remains to be seen. “Depending on how the numbers come back this year — once the marathon concludes, we’ll be able to calculate the number in a little bit more detail — but I would expect it would probably fall more in between those two numbers,” she said.

The wild card, as it was in both 2020 and 2021, is the virus. “COVID is still among us, so I don’t know what their numbers are currently sitting at to know if they’re higher or lower than last year,” Mork remarked. “It could come in higher if people are just kind of ready to get out and about, but we won’t know until the event actually concludes and we can see how many racers they actually had for each event.”

Changing course

With the week of marathon events approaching the starting line, the busy season is well under way for Fargo Marathon Executive Director Mark Knutson.

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Most notably, Knutson has been changing course both figuratively and literally. The marathon route had to be altered due to the extreme rainfall which has lashed the area in recent weeks. “It’s a little bit of craziness right now,” Knutson said. “It just throws a little wrench into things.”

Dealing with the Red River is nothing new for executive director Mark Knutson.

Flood issues are “par for the course,” however, when it comes to planning a spring marathon in the Red River Valley. Of the 18 years Knutson has been involved with the event, he figured that flooding has forced changes eight or nine times.

In his role as one of the leading marathon planners, Knutson has also had to deal with a scheduling crunch. With 2021’s late-September marathon barely in the rearview mirror, it’s been a tough turnaround, both for participants and planners.

While Knutson said he did enjoy the one-off fall marathon from an organizing perspective — the fall race meant not having to deal with the effects of the previous winter — it jockeyed for relevance on the metro area calendar. The 2021 marathon was up against events like Bison football, children returning to school and other high school and college athletics.

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The Fargo Marathon begins inside of the Fargodome on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

This year, Knutson is expecting 7,500 participants for the marathon events. That’s “down quite a bit” from pre-pandemic levels and is half of 2019’s crowd of 15,000, mirroring a national trend. “The industry itself is feeling that, so it’s not just Fargo,” he said. “The various marathon races around the country have all seen anywhere from 30 to 40 to 50% declines for this year as everybody’s still coming out of COVID.”

Knutson felt the tight timeframe from 2021’s events to this year was a contributing factor to this year’s decline. Registration for this year’s events didn’t open until December, mere months after 2021’s concluded. “The challenge is we just had the event in September, so to kind of spin it around and get it opened up again in May, we kind of expected numbers to be down just because of that,” he said.

Adding to the difficulties was a prolonged “winter that just wouldn’t die,” which meant a lot of treadmill running for himself and other racers and less zeal to get outside. “People kind of go, ‘I just did that in September, I’m going to wait another year,’” Knutson commented.

Excitement still building

Although the marathon is enduring a unique set of virus-induced challenges, anticipation for the race is still growing.

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Economically, Mork expected retail, hospitality and attractions to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the marathon.

Tanya Bale, owner of The Shack on Broadway , is expecting the same. It’s just one piece of a stacked May calendar, which has thus far included a Paw Patrol show at the Fargodome and Mother’s Day, as well as upcoming high school and college graduations.

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Tanya Bale, owner of The Shack on Broadway, on May 11, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

With all those events, May is already one of the busiest months of the year for her, so she’s glad they don’t all fall on the same weekends. “When it’s fallen on the same weekend as Mother’s Day, then it’s just absolutely insane,” she said of the marathon.

Events like the marathon, which starts and finishes at the Fargodome, particularly benefit the northside institution. It helps that The Shack is fully stocked with anything runners need for their carbo-loading. “Everybody comes for their pancakes or rolls or whatever they can get into them,” Bale said.

The big crowds the marathon draws are also an important lift for The Shack, Bale noted. She expected to be hustling throughout the marathon week and will staff accordingly. “It’s a boost that we do count on, especially after the long cold winter we had,” she said. “Knowing that this event is now finally back, this month of May this year will be better than it was last year and definitely better than 2020.”

Over in Moorhead, Junkyard Brewing Company owner Aaron Juhnke said he also notices a bump in business come marathon week, particularly if the weather cooperates. “That generally tends to boost our taproom numbers, whenever the weather is nice,” he explained. “Whenever you get nice weather on top of an event, especially an outdoor event like the marathon, we’re going to notice a bunch of extra people coming in.”

Like Bale, Juhnke said it’ll be all hands on deck to handle the marathon throngs, the same as it would be for a show at the Bluestem Amphitheater or any other large event. Guests are “just looking for a cool place to go,” Juhnke said, and Junkyard’s large patio is happy to oblige.

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The spacious outdoor patio at Junkyard Brewing Company in north Moorhead, seen May 11, 2022, is a major attraction for visitors when the weather cooperates, owner Aaron Juhnke said.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

While Juhnke noted that he doesn’t “build the business on” those large event spikes, they’re always appreciated. Particularly for the marathon, Juhnke anticipates the impact will be spread all throughout the area. “My sense is that the marathon as a whole is going to have a giant impact on Fargo-Moorhead, but it’s going to be spread far and wide across all kinds of businesses,” he projected. “There’s not one particular place that everybody’s going who comes to town for the marathon.”

Overall, while the boost may only be slight at one particular establishment, the sum total is a massive gain for the area. “If everybody across town is up 10% on that weekend compared to where they would be normally, it’s like ‘Well, that’s nice, but it’s not a game-changer,’” Juhnke said. “However, if you add that all up, it’s pretty huge.”

Shining a spotlight on Fargo

Add both Mork and Knutson to the list of people thrilled to see the marathon returning to normal.

For Mork, the marathon represents a showcase opportunity for the metro area. Be it breweries like Junkyard, restaurants like The Shack or other shops and attractions, the marathon offers the city a chance to promote itself to visitors. “They really get a chance to kind of get into the community and experience all that we have to offer,” Mork said.

Mork credited sporting events with helping to fuel the recovery from the pandemic. She can tell when events are going on simply by the uptick in guests at the visitors center. “Sports is one of the first things that came back and it’s really driven a lot of spending for our community,” she said. “It really helped keep a lot of businesses afloat during such a horrific time for our industry, probably one of the worst crises our industry has ever seen.”

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Runners in the Sanford Fargo Half Marathon travel north on Broadway on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Back in its rightful place on the spring calendar, the marathon is also a positive sign after years of pandemic problems. “It’s just another thing to have the marathon back on its regular schedule and its regular time frame of the year,” Mork said. “That just signifies another return to normalcy for people and I think that’s what everybody gets excited about is just getting some sense of normalcy back.”

Even though 70% of participants are within a three-hour radius of Fargo, Knutson said people flock from across the country for the Fargo Marathon. He too relished the opportunity to put the city on a pedestal. “In a broader sense, just bringing people into our community, that’s always been really rewarding for myself,” he said. “It’s fun to see the community get the spotlight for just being a great community.”

Readers can reach InForum reporter Thomas Evanella at tevanella@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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