St. George City Council discusses plans for hosting Ironman World Championship

ST. GEORGE — During a thorough presentation at Wednesday’s city council meeting, officials from the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, in conjunction with city officials, laid out plans for hosting the 2021 Ironman World Championship.

Bikers at the start line for the 2019 Ironman 70.3 race in Southern Utah, May 4, 2019 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

In May, Ironman officials announced a five-year host venue agreement with Washington County that included the return of a full distance Ironman race to the area beginning in 2020 and rotating between select cities. A good portion of the events will be held in St. George.

Kevin Lewis, director of the Zion Convention and Tourism Office, said it’s an exciting time to be part of Ironman with seven events planned through 2024.

First up is the Ironman St. George North American Championship, held May 2, which will attract about 2,500 athletes.

The triathlon begins with a 2.4-mile swim held at the scenic Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane. The water temperature is expected to be a bone-chilling 60 to 64 degrees.

Following the swim is a 112-mile bicycle race, and the race is capped off with a 26.2-mile marathon.

“We’ve been working with various agencies, cities and communities to sign (agreements) similar to those we’ve had in the past,” Lewis said. “We are just adding additional elements that come with the new events.”

Ironmen and women will descend upon St. George in 2021 to compete in the organization’s prestigious world championship. The grueling physical event will attract more than 7,000 athletes to southern Utah, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office

The additional elements include revamped course routes to minimize the impact on traffic. The event starts at 7 a.m. and will last until the last participant completes the triathlon by entering Town Square sometime around midnight.

“The benefit of the course change, by 5 p.m. Red Hills Parkway will be completely open again even with the full distance event going on,” said Marc Mortensen, St. George director of support service. “Traffic should flow much better than it has in the past.”

One of the goals, Mortensen added, is to help the community understand it’s not the same-old-same-old event that it has been in the past, but 2020 is going to be different and more user-friendly both for the athletes and community residents.

The economic impact of the 2020 triathlon is expected to infuse $8 to $10 million into local economies.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the event mix is the world championship scheduled to be held in and around St. George Sept. 13-18, 2021.

The return of the world championship to North America will be the first time the event has been hosted in a southwestern state since 2013.

Including banquets and other festivities, the world championship includes a woman’s race on September 17 and a men’s race on September 18.

“This event has some pretty neat mystique,” Lewis said. “This is our Olympics. It’s like 2002 in Salt Lake for us. It’s going to be one of the biggest events to ever happen in this area.”

Holly Lawrence during the swim portion of the Ironman 70.3 North American Pro Championship St. George, Hurricane, Utah, May 4, 2019 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Each year the Ironman World Championship rotates around the globe with past venues in France, Philippines, Spain, New Zealand and now adding St. George to the list.

While Lewis said it is a little intimidating “playing with the big boys,” but that he is confident Southern Utah is up for the challenge.

“This is the caliber of locations that we have just put ourselves in,” Lewis added. “We will pull it off. We have the landscapes, we have the people and we have a long history that we can pull from. It is awesome to be playing with the big boys.”

As part of the intel on how the world championship is presented, Mortensen and Lewis visited this year’s event in Nice, France.

Of the 170 counties in the world, 110 were represented in Nice, which hosted 5,700 athletes. 7,000 athletes are projected to attend the championship in St. George.

The direct, local economic impact of the world championship is anticipated to be approximately $25 million.

“Sometimes the dollars are just numbers, but this is the kind of impact the event has in one week,” Lewis said. “It will really be a phenomenal event for the region.”

Local event planners say it is not just about the race as much as it is about the place and its infrastructure needed to host so many people.

A participant in the 2019 Ironman 70.3 in Southern Utah, May 4, 2019 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

As part of a potential cooperative agreement between the city and county, a metal sculpture would be commissioned with the Ironman logo to be showcased as part of the Art Around the Corner Foundation’s downtown sculpture exhibits.

“This would be a substantial piece,” Mortensen said. “It would be much like the size of the guitar or the spider, so it really pops.”

Along with the “positive,” long term, permanent improvements to downtown, there are some challenges involved in hosting the world championship that St. George’s leadership will face during the next 18 months of planning.

“One of the things we’ve identified is transportation,” Lewis said. “We go from Town Square to Sand Hollow and the top of Snow Canyon. We have to create a transportation network, a system that can help move spectators around … so that they don’t have to get in a car and clog up everything in town.”

Lewis said the goal is to take the necessary steps to make the St. George Ironman World Championship a positive experience.

Other improvements include better signage to locate potential places of interest, restaurants and bathrooms, along with developing a plan to accommodate basic communication with more than 100 foreign-speaking spectators.

“We want to make it easy for anyone speaking a foreign language to find their way around,” Lewis said.

Discussions are ongoing for international students at Dixie State University to provide translation services.

As a happy circumstance, the city is currently underway to improve downtown signage. The city realizes the need to guide people to other areas such as Entrada and Green Valley that offer visitors resort opportunities.

L-R: Runner-up Bart Aernouts, winner Rudy Von Berg and third-place finisher Jackson Laundry pop champagne atop the medals podium of the Ironman 70.3 North American Pro Championship St. George, St. George, Utah, May 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“We have some opportunities to put in some infrastructure that will not only benefit us today but will prepare us for the world’s visitors for years to come,” Mortensen said.

Mortensen added his department will submit a budget request for the next fiscal year to accommodate some of the needs and wants that will roll in the changes required to host the Ironman World Championship.

“This will be an ask that will be between the city and the county to figure out how to fund what we want to build out to make it work for our visitors,” Mortensen said.

Lewis agrees the city needs to pull out all of the stops to shine, especially during the Ironman World Championship.

“We want to do whatever we can to elevate those things that create frustrations and turn it into a celebration that showcases who we are, what we are about and lets the world know how well we can host this type of event,” Lewis said.

A big supporter, Mayor Jon Pike embraces the benefits of hosting the championship and said the city will rise to the challenges.

“We’ve got to get people up for it so they realize how huge this is for St. George,” Pike said.

There are some great ideas on the table, Pike added, and that he is looking forward to many more.

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