The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 24 - 2/10/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
It's something to do during the winter, but its economic and community value are questionable
by Rob Shaul
People in Pinedale have mixed feelings about the Inter-Mountain Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IMSSSDR). Now in its fifth year, the race is clearly growing in terms of media attention. Touted as being the "largest sled dog race in the lower 48," the IMSSSDR certainly draws attention to Wyoming and the community stops along the race - including Pinedale, which has been one of the stage stops since it's inception. This year the vaunted New York Times sent a writer and photographer all the way to Pinedale to cover one of the towns on the race route.
However, locals are ambivalent about the value of the race. An interesting event? Yes. A community event? Maybe. A commercial success? Debatable.
Good for the Community?
"I think it's a great thing for the community," says Wendy Walter, owner of The Barn Door Design & Interiors in Pinedale. Ms. Walter pitched in $125 along with the Sublette County Journal to co-sponsor one of the race banners, and she helped organize the race stop in Pinedale.
Ms. Walter notes that sled dog racing is a unique, outdoor sport that draws people outside during the dark winter days. "It's a great way of getting all the community involved in something that comes here," she says. "It gives us exposure to something that is different, unique, and educational."
This year, the community events surrounding the race included the doggie-fashion show held the week leading up to the race, spectating at the Pinedale finish line, the dessert social that evening, and the race start at Irish Canyon the following morning.
"I think so," replies Pinedale Stage Stop Chairperson Gayle Kinnison, who organized all of the race-related activities. "Wyoming winters can be kind of long. It gives us a reason to get out, get together, and do something."
Ms. Kinnison says the turnout at the dessert social last week was "excellent," though not as high as last year. She suspects a scheduling conflict with the Alice in Wonderland auditions held that night suppressed the turnout.
Darla Worden, media spokesperson for the race organizers out of Jackson, also points to the dessert social turnout as evidence that the sled dog race is a community event in Pinedale. "I don't think you'd get that turnout if there was any ambivalence about the race," she says.
The race does provide some educational opportunities for both Big Piney and Pinedale kids. Students from Pinedale elementary school and the Pinedale Preschool watched the teams finish the Pinedale leg of the race, and interacted with the mushers and handlers afterward. Students from the Learning Center in Big Piney also cheered mushers at the finish line, and at least one Big Piney 4-H group came to watch and ask questions.
Not everyone is convinced the race has much community value, however. One Pinedale resident, who wished to remain anonymous, was at the Pinedale finish line. "It's definitely not a spectator sport," this person said. "There were only 40-50 people at the finish line to see the first mushers come through, and most of them were handlers." This person also notes how short of a time the race impacts Pinedale. "I'm not convinced it brings much into the community, because it is so quick."
"It just doesn't seem to match us yet," said another life-long county resident who also wished to remain anonymous. This person thinks the race is overly commercialized and in the end, "it ends up making such a big deal out of nothing. The newness has worn off."
An Economic Shot in the Arm?
Is the sled dog race an economic shot in the arm for Pinedale? "It may be debatable if it's a commercial event," admits Gayle Kinnison. The problem is that the mushers and their handlers spend so little time in Pinedale.
However, Pinedale Mayor Rose Skinner sees the race from primarily an economic perspective. "I think it's a good thing for the economy and the town," she says, "plus it has the potential to grow."
The race committee's Darla Worden maintains that the communities always get back financially what they pay to bring the race to the town.
It costs Pinedale $6,000 to be one of the stage stops on the race route. This money is raised through the sale of business sponsorships for 29 race banners, the majority of which this year cost $250. Gayle Kinnison sold the banners, and she says five of them sold for $500.
Interestingly, of the 29 banners sold this year, just six were purchased by businesses which see some economic benefit from the race, including two hotels who co-sponsored a banner, two newspapers (one co-sponsored), and one each from a restaurant, a bar and a convenience store. Six of the banners were sponsored by McMurry family members and businesses associated with the Jonah Field.
Ms. Kinnison is surprised, and somewhat disappointed, that more of the businesses which benefit from the race, especially the restaurants and motels, don't pony up for sponsorships. The two businesses which seem to benefit the most, the Pinedale Best Western and Wrangler Cafˇ were not interested in sponsoring banners, says Gayle.
One business owner, who ultimately chose not to sponsor a banner, believes that many of the businesses who did pay to sponsor the race's stop in Pinedale did so for reasons other than supporting the race - including wanting to support Ms. Kinnison who is actively involved in the community. "People are putting money into it in the hope that it will grow into something big, and it's not now. They are putting money in out of peer pressure, not a belief in the race itself," said this individual who also wished to remain anonymous.
The one thing the race does do is bring national attention to Pinedale. National media coverage of the race and the communities along the race route goes beyond the story about Pinedale in the New York Times says the race committee's Ms. Worden. A thirty-minute program featuring the race will appear twice during prime time in March on the Outdoor Life Channel. The race has received coverage in USA Today, and been the subject of two segments on CNN. A story in Sports Illustrated is set to run next week and Outside Magazine has been following the race progress on its website. Finally, the NBC bureau is covering the race through its satellite system in Denver, says Ms. Worden, beaming updates to NBC affiliates in 14 major media markets across the country. "You just can't buy advertising exposure like that," she concludes.
In theory, this free exposure could bring tourism dollars to Pinedale. "I think the attention is excellent," says Mayor Skinner. She hopes the race continues to "build and build" and brings more and more attention to Pinedale and its winter sports. "We really need to build the economy in the winter," she says, adding that the sled dog race could diversify and add to the variety of winter economic opportunities.
However, as the New York Times' Michael Janofsky found, there is some ambivalence about this media attention in Pinedale, and the potential growth that could result from it. Mr. Janofsky's story focused on the ambivalence surrounding the attention from the race. He quoted several Pinedale residents including Bob Bing, Paul Riggs, and Suzy Michnevich each of whom expressed apprehensiveness concerning growth.
Darla Worden believes the Times' writer wrote his story before he arrived in Pinedale, and didn't bother to interview those who like the race and the attention it brings to town. She says that of all the towns on the race route, only Pinedale is somewhat ambivalent about the attention the race brings to the community.
For her part, Wendy Walter thinks the attention is positive. "I'm not so against growth," she says. "I don't know how many people are going to act on it [the attention from the race]. I don't consider it a threat at all."
Even the business owner who questions the race's economic impact doesn't mind the attention the race brings to Pinedale. "I think it's probably good," says this individual. "I personally don't mind people hearing about this place and coming here."
Despite the controversy and ambivalence, Gayle Kinnison believes in the sled dog race and it's positive impact on Pinedale. "I enjoy it," she says simply, adding that she's volunteered to chair next years' Pinedale Stage Stop Committee.
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