Friday, February 11, 2011

Nordic Fest returns with a bang

Participation up 50 percent for 9-day festival


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

A crowd gathers around a bonfire on the open lot across from the Ketchum Post Office on Thursday, Feb. 3, to hear the music of The Pimps of Joytime and watch cross-country skiing sprint races. Photo by David N. Seelig

Organizers estimate that the Sun Valley Nordic Festival attracted almost 50 percent more participants than it did for its premiere a year ago, with 3,300 in attendance during its nine days of events ending Feb. 6.

Jim Keating, executive director of the Blaine County Recreation District and one of the festival's 30 organizers, said attendance was about 1,100 more than it was for the 2010 festival. He emphasized that that doesn't mean 3,300 different people joined in, but that race entries and head counts at all events totaled 3,300.

"We're all vastly exhausted at the moment but really pleased," he said. "We expected an increase but this clearly exceeded my expectations."

The result was a burst of business to local retailers and restaurants. Toni Bogue, interim manager of the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that upsurge rivaled profits of a pre-recession 2006 winter week. Bogue said she talked to about a dozen businesses, including The Elephant's Perch, Sturtevants and restaurants Sushi on Second, Sawtooth Club and il Naso.

"They're fired up," she said. "These poor people are struggling. This was a little boost for them."

Hotels, however, weren't so lucky. Cindy Forgeon, owner of the Best Western Kentwood Lodge, said business was for the most part unaffected by the festival, an experience shared by most north valley hotels. The chamber's weekly hotel occupancy report shows 52 percent of Sun Valley and Ketchum rooms as filled during Nordic week, 7 percent less than in 2010. Hailey hotels were half full, up from 29 percent in 2010.

Even though the positive effect to many valley businesses is rewarding, Boulder Mountain Tour organizer Kevin Swigert said, it's not the festival's goal.

"There's a whole lot more to this than bringing a couple more people to eat in restaurants and stay in hotel rooms," Swigert said.

The Boulder Mountain Tour is a 32-kilometer cross-country ski race dating to 1975 that has come to attract about 800 skiers every year and is now part of the Nordic festival.

He said the Wood River Valley is a Nordic mecca but remains under the radar of most cross-country skiers. The valley offers 124 miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails stretching from the southern valley to north of Galena Summit. The area has recently dubbed itself Nordic Town USA. He said the festival is meant to attract the Nordic enthusiasts and appeal to novices, ultimately growing the sport.

"I think everybody agrees we're on the right track," Swigert said.

For example, the Boulder Mountain Tour attracted 996 entrants compared to 875 last year.

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"I couldn't be happier," he said. "I even had to turn people away."

He attributes that increase in enthusiasm mainly to the race's $12,250 prize total, much more than last year's $1,200. The city of Sun Valley contributed $10,000. Swigert said that having a worthwhile purse encourages elite skiers to travel here to participate. He said that once others hear that their heroes—like Billy Demong, the only U.S. Nordic skier to win a gold medal in the Olympics—are competing, they join in to ski alongside them. About three-quarters of the racers were from out of the valley.

The problem with just having the Boulder and no other activities, which was the mode of operation prior to the festival, is that the skiers are gone as soon as it's over. They don't become aware of the other Nordic offerings beyond the Boulder course.

For example, the Sun Valley Nordic and Snowshoe Center offers 25 miles of groomed trails. The center held several festival events. Ivana Radlova, the center's executive director and a Nordic Olympian, said the Sun Valley trails were busier than normal during the festival week.

"It was a complete zoo here for demo days [on Feb. 6]," she said.

Swigert said the beauty of the festival, organized by many groups and not just one lead organization, is that the smaller events can come and go as they "fizzle out," keeping it lively and interesting. Groups can add events as they wish.

Looking forward to Presidents' Day weekend

Sun Valley Resort spokesman Jack Sibbach said there have "surprisingly" been no cancellations of room bookings despite the dry skies dominating the valley since the Christmas holiday.

"The phones are still ringing," he said. "We're still getting bookings."

Sun Valley Resort operates Bald and Dollar mountains and also offers the most lodging of any valley hotel.

Even though business hasn't seen a noticeable hit yet due to the lack of snowfall, Sibbach said it would be affected if nothing comes in time for Presidents' Day. He said the holiday weekend "sets the stage" for spring skiing.

On Thursday, Sun Valley reported a 60-inch snow base at the summit of Bald Mountain.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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