UPDATE: Tour of Missouri once again in doubt as state funding stalls

Thursday, May 6, 2010 | 4:38 p.m. CDT; updated 2:41 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — Organizers of the Tour of Missouri said Thursday the international cycling race is in deep trouble and likely won't be held in a few months because of uncertainty over state funding.

"We've said all along that without the state, it's just not realistic," said Chris Aronholt, managing partner of Medalist Sports, the Georgia company that coordinates the race.

State lawmakers awarded the 2010 race $1 million from the Division of Tourism. The three previous tours received a total of $6 million in public money.

But faced with its own budget cuts of $5 million to $7 million, the tourism division says it needs the race money for more pressing projects with greater statewide benefit. And Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who last year temporarily froze the race's $1.5 million tourism allocation before changing course, doesn't seem likely to overrule the tourism commission.

The race was started by his predecessor, Republican Matt Blunt, and later championed by Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Nixon's presumed challenger in the 2012 election.

"The state money is not going toward the race," said Tourism Commission chairwoman Marci Bennett. "I hope the race organizers can pull a rabbit out of a hat as far as corporate sponsors."

The 2010 race is scheduled to be run Aug. 31 through Sept. 6.

While the Missouri race has received some corporate support, it struggled to find a title sponsor to attach its name to the event and relieve the state of what had always been intended as a short-term financial commitment.

Similar financial woes have scuttled professional cycling races in Utah, Connecticut and Georgia in recent years, leaving the Tour of California as the country's only high-level pro event.

St. Louis bike shop owner Mike Weiss, chairman of the Tour of Missouri board, held out hope that the race can be salvaged by ramping up public pressure among supporters, including state lawmakers from both parties.

"This event was 'canceled' last summer, and there was a reversal," he said. "What we're seeing right now is a calculation. It just needs to be shown that it's a miscalculation."

Aronholt said that other states are prepared to fill the void if the Missouri race disappears.

"We are in discussions with and aware of interest from other states," he said.

Race boosters had hoped to lure seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and his new Radio Shack team to Missouri. Armstrong retired in 2005 but returned to racing last year.

"This is the only event after the Tour de France that could possibly have Lance Armstrong racing on home soil," Weiss said. "Why not Missouri?"

An economic analysis of the 2009 Tour of Missouri paid for by the state estimated about a half-million people watched the race and spent more than $30 million. Still, some state tourism officials have questioned the value of the race.

Weiss said the race has reduced its budget by $1 million this year and expected to collect an equivalent amount in private support.

"We have an event that is ready to launch," he said. "We have major corporations that are Missouri-based that are reluctant to commit resources because of the politics. It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

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