Escondido is ready this time for world-class bike race opportunities

Several recent events have helped brand Escondido as the haven for anything with wheels. While its new-car dealerships are second only to San Diego, its city-of-wheels image extends beyond how many vehicles are for sale.

For six months a year since 2000, Escondido’s Grand Avenue has become a taxiway on Friday nights for scores of classic and vintage cars that cruise up and down the downtown thoroughfare, attracting thousands of Cruisin’ Grand spectators.

Downtown restaurants, delis, wine and beer bars, and boutiques thrive during the late afternoon and early twilight hours. In the off-season, there’s the unmeasured hunch that many Cruisin’ fans return to dine and shop.

But in 2009, Cami Mattson, the head of what was then the San Diego North Convention and Visitors Bureau, led an effort to persuade AEG, the organizer of the statewide Amgen Tour of California professional road cycling race, to stage the final leg of that year’s event in Escondido. The Tour de France-style race is the largest cycling event in the nation, attracting the world’s top professional cycling teams.

On that Sunday in May 2009, up to 40,000 race fans jammed downtown streets at the finish line, while upward of 100,000 others lined the 100-mile back country route that led cycling pros up and back from the top of Palomar Mountain.

Not realizing in advance the full impact of the event, merchants and restaurants were overwhelmed with business, running out of food, drink, and things to sell. But the result was positive for both the city’s coffers and AEG who said that year’s final leg was among the most memorable in the race’s history. They promised to return.

And so they have this year, but in grander fashion, thanks to a $475,000 pledge by the city that is being offset to some degree by sponsorships and contributions. On Sunday, Escondido will host the starting leg of the eight-day race that will end the following weekend in Northern California.

After Escondido, competitors will pedal in half-day events next week from Murietta to Palm Springs, Palmdale to Santa Clarita, then to Santa Barbara, Avila Beach, San Jose, from Livermore to Mount Diablo, and from San Francisco to Santa Rosa.

Leading up to this Sunday’s starting gun, Escondido is hosting several events to heighten awareness and of course, business patronage.

Friday, while Cruisin’ Grand lures its weekly car followers, the city will host a $125 per ticket team presentation gala at the California Center for the Arts, followed by a Kick Off After-Party, also at the arts center.

Saturday, amateur riders of all abilities will compete in “L’Etape du California,” a test ride of the start and first stage of the course the professionals will ride.

Then on Sunday, many events will entertain visitors before and after the 11:15 a.m. start, including an Escondido Lifestyle Festival, Kids Zone, Food Truck Village and live entertainment during the race in Grape Day Park. The day will ends shortly before 4 p.m. with an awards presentation at the finish line at Grand and Broadway.

City organizers say it’s unrealistic to compare the economic impact of the 2009 event’s final leg to this year’s more prosperous starting event, given the additional activities this week and Sunday. Restaurants and merchants also are more savvy this time, preparing for crowds that will at least match if not slightly exceed the 2009 numbers.

That said, Joyce Masterson, the city’s economic development division director, said the city could easily collect up to $6 million in sales tax and other revenues during this week, based on what other cities have reaped as the race’s starting point.

The one constraint is the city’s lack of a full-service hotel among its midlevel motels. Four years ago, none of the city’s hospitality facilities were used by Amgen fans. This year, two of the nine lodging facilities needed for the race are in Escondido. One can only wonder how much additional bed-tax revenues could be generated if the city of 145,000 residents had a decent hotel.

But the city’s Visitors Bureau and other promoters have plenty to work with, including unanimous support among the city’s political and economic factions and a staff of city employees and volunteers, bent on organizing and carrying out a flawless event.

Daniels is a North County Realtor as well as a public relations practitioner consultant and a former Escondido city councilman.

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