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Marathon, Bison football cancellations cost Fargo millions in visitor spending, F-M Convention and Visitors Bureau says

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.

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Runners in the Sanford Fargo Half Marathon pass the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, May 18, 2019. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — Had everything gone to plan, roughly 15,000 runners would have filled the streets of the Fargo-Moorhead area a week ago for the 16th annual Sanford Fargo Marathon and its other events. In a world under the grip of a global pandemic, though, little has gone to plan.

As of June 18 , the Sanford Fargo Marathon was on track to be one of a handful of marathons to take place in the United States amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In the month that followed, active cases of the virus more than tripled in the state, forcing the cancellation of one of Fargo's marquee summer events .

The cancellation cost Fargo an estimated $2.5 million in "direct visitor spending," Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Athletic Commission said.

A conservative estimate

Direct visitor spending, Mork explained, is a more conservative estimate than economic impact because "it doesn't rely on as many assumptions or multipliers like economic impact calculators often do."

"There are about as many ways to calculate economic impact as there are cities that do it," Mork continued. "A lot of times those end up using multipliers… and it gets very gray very quickly."

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Mork also estimated a loss of $500,000 for every postponed North Dakota State football game, noting the figure does not include money Fargo residents spend on game days.

"It doesn't account for the local people who go out and spend money at the bars," she said. "If we're talking in terms of the marathon, the people who participate and go out to eat who live here who maybe wouldn't have gone out to eat otherwise."

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Tailgating offers Bison fans an opportunity to connect with friends and family before heading into the Fargodome to cheer on the North Dakota State University Bison football team. Forum file photo

Mork said the actual economic impact of canceled events such as the marathon and NDSU football games is likely greater than estimated. "We're very confident in our numbers that they're very conservative," she said. "We know it's probably more than the numbers we use in our formulas, but we would rather be conservative on that front than provide numbers that are overly-inflated."

Previously, the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors' Bureau calculated direct visitor spending by associating a dollar figure with the number of room nights sold in hotels across the city for a given event, Mork explained. The Convention and Visitors’ Bureau is working with a local research firm to update its figures, meaning this year's figures were tabulated using what Mork termed a "hybrid" approach.

The Bison are slated for a single game this fall, against Central Arkansas on Oct. 3. The university announced Tuesday, Sept. 1, a maximum of 10,000 fans will be allowed to attend the game , however tailgating, which often attracts North Dakotans from across the state, will not be allowed.

NDSU's remaining Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule has been postponed to the spring, but given the uncertainty of the pandemic, it's far from a guarantee the Bison will play a full slate of games.

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Taking a hit

Steve Martodam, president and COO of Brandt Hospitality Group, noted hoteliers across the metro area have taken a hit from event cancellations. Brandt Hospitality Group manages five hotels in Fargo, the Courtyard by Marriott, Holiday Inn, Radisson and two Holiday Inn Express locations.

"A single canceled event like the marathon can cost a hotel tens of thousands in revenue," Martodam said. The loss of an entire Bison football season, he said, could cost in excess of six figures for each hotel.

"We have a lot of hotels that, if events aren't happening, they're heavily impacted. It's been a difficult pandemic for them," Mork said.

Those go beyond Fargo's marquee events and include youth sports tournaments and conventions. An annual Jehovah's Witnesses convention, which in the past has brought 4,000 people to Fargo , was forced online due to the pandemic.

"Over the Fourth of July, which is typically a slower time in o ur community because a lot of people travel out to lakes county or vacations out of town, we have hosted the Jehovah's Witnesses convention in town over that same time," Mork said.

"Those (losses) all add up very quickly," Mork concluded.

In addition to the lodging industry, Mork listed dining, retail and attractions as other industries suffering as a result of losing events. Visiting Fargo usually entails dining at a local restaurant and shopping at local boutique stores and even retail franchises such as Target and those in the West Acres Mall, she said. Visitors drive foot-traffic for attractions such as the Red River Zoo, Bonanzaville, Plains Art Museum and Fargo Air Museum as well.

"When people come into town, they're eating at our restaurants, shopping in our stores and staying in our hotels," Mork said. "When they leave, they leave some of their money with us. All of that contributes to the quality of life and economic resiliency of our community."

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Relief for businesses

In May, the Convention and Visitors' Bureau signed off on a COVID-19 relief package for local businesses, including hoteliers and attractions, to weather the financial effects of the pandemic.

"We are fortunate that our board of directors saw the impact early on," Mork said. "We took some of our budget dollars and dedicated it towards that."

Before allocating relief funds, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau also launched a marketing campaign to encourage locals to patronize area restaurants. The campaign included gift card giveaways which the bureau purchased from local restaurants.

'A fine balance'

Even NDSU's single game on Oct. 3., which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as a "higher-risk activity," can have a measurable effect on local commerce, Mork said.

"Any time that we have events in town, that is going to positively impact our community and our economy in town because local residents are maybe venturing out when they wouldn't have otherwise," Mork commented. "Depending on the event, it is attractive for people to take a chance and come to town."

Still, Mork said, the city needs to weigh the economic boon of events with the risk COVID-19 poses. While the city, university and Fargo Cass Public Health gave the green light for 10,000 fans to attend NDSU's lone fall football game, the event ought to provide a litmus test for the city's return to mass gatherings.

"In general, it's always a fine balance between making sure that we have the economic stability in what those events bring but keeping in mind there is still a lot of hesitation for people out there with the unknowns of COVID-19," Mork said. "It's always a balance of ensuring we're doing what we can for the community from an economic standpoint and a health standpoint as well."

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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