2013 Tour of California: Avila Beach to the rescue

Business owner Bill Price, with his dog Bella, is looking forward to the Tour of California coming to Avila Beach next May.
Photo by Joe Johnston 12-04-12
Business owner Bill Price, with his dog Bella, is looking forward to the Tour of California coming to Avila Beach next May. Photo by Joe Johnston 12-04-12 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

As news spread about the Tour of California finishing its fifth stage in Avila Beach in the spring, the reaction was mixed.

Local tourism officials, cycling enthusiasts and some business owners were thrilled. Some residents and a downtown business owner were worried. County leaders were initially surprised, then optimistic.

Avila Beach became the focus for the Tour of California’s fifth stage shortly after San Luis Obispo, worried about the cost to host a finish, declined to participate.

Avila Beach will get the finish, the crowds and the international exposure — at a fraction of the cost.

But there’s a lot of work ahead and many details to be resolved before an expected 128 riders sprint to a finish in the seaside community May 16 in America’s biggest cycling event.

Tour organizers need to work with county officials to set a route, submit a traffic control plan and notify local residents of road closures. They also need to obtain a special-event permit from the county.

In the meantime, county officials are already responding to concerns from residents, who worry about traffic, parking and other safety issues. Some are frustrated that the group involved with bringing the Tour to Avila Beach — a few local hoteliers — didn’t notify the county or the community before the tour stages were announced Nov. 27.

Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Avila Beach, plans to attend an Avila Valley Advisory Council meeting Monday to answer numerous questions posed by that board.

“I understand there are people who are concerned, possibly because they didn’t have any input, and that is completely legitimate,” Hill said this past week. “I’m hoping … that we can alleviate those concerns and make the thing happen.”

Avila Beach’s stage finish would mark the sixth time the Tour of California has come into San Luis Obispo County since the inaugural race in 2006. San Luis Obispo hosted stage finishes in 2006, 2007 and 2008; Paso Robles hosted it in 2009 and 2011.

San Luis Obispo’s Tourism Business Improvement District had committed to spend $30,440 for the 2013 race had it been selected as a stage-start city.

But when the tour changed the route and asked San Luis Obispo to host a stage finish, city leaders decided the increased cost — estimated at $120,000 — and the logistics of working around the Thursday night Farmers Market would make it too difficult to participate, said Molly Cano, the city’s tourism manager.

Then, Bob Stapleton, a San Luis Obispo resident and owner of High Road Sports, worked with local hoteliers, including John King, on a plan to keep the tour in the area. First, they approached Pismo Beach, but that city said it didn’t have enough time to consider a stage finish.

Then they suggested that AEG, the Los Angeles-based company that owns the Tour of California, consider Avila Beach. Tour organizers like to change the course from year to year to give the riders new challenges and expose more people to the sport, said AEG spokesman Michael Roth.

Tour officials visited Avila Beach and “thought it would look like a million bucks,” King said at a recent meeting of the Avila Beach Tourism Alliance. The alliance, an arm of the county Business Improvement District, is funded with special assessments added to the normal transient occupancy tax paid by overnight visitors to hotels in the county.

They “exchanged ideas,” King said, including the point that the Avila community “doesn’t have the money for this.”

The group arrived at a fixed amount — $30,000 — which would be funded by the tourism alliance and help pay primarily for hotel rooms and meals. The rest, including public services, would be covered by AEG.

King said he has a verbal agreement with AEG and has sent them a letter stating “it’s our understanding that under no conditions the contribution will be beyond what’s been discussed.”

Roth said the company doesn’t comment on financial information.

The three-member tourism alliance board voted unanimously on Nov. 30 to commit $30,000 to the event. The countywide Business Improvement District board still has to approve the amount, which it will consider Wednesday.

The tourism alliance funds are intended to be used to increase overnight stays in Avila Beach. The tour fits into that mission, said Charles Crellin, alliance board chairman and general manager of Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, which is owned by King Ventures.

“I think the tour fits extremely well,” he said. “So many people will be coming from out of the area, and that’s exactly what we want, as well as the exposure in the media.”

The tour anticipates needing several hundred hotel rooms for its organizers to stay in May 15, so they can set up for the May 16 finish, Roth said. King said they settled on 190 rooms.

The riders may not sleep in town — they’ll likely head up to San Jose for the next day’s individual time trial.

Hoteliers and tourism officials are already brainstorming ways to get people to stay in the area for a long weekend, such as a wine walk or other dining and lodging packages.

“People come to an area for a specific purpose to see the race, but they never had Avila Beach on their radar before,” said John Sorgenfrei, owner of TJA Advertising, which handles marketing for the tourism alliance. “They’ll see how beautiful it is, and they’ll come back.”

Not all are convinced

But some residents aren’t so sure that the small community, with one public access route, is the right place for such a large event.

“We live in a fire hazard area, we have Diablo Canyon (nuclear power plant), and we have inappropriate access for this type of event,” said Sherri Danoff, vice chair of the Avila Valley Advisory Council. “Avila is appropriate for a lot of activities, but for great big ones, we don’t have the access.”

Micheal Kidd, owner of Joe Momma’s Coffee on Front Street, outlined three main concerns: traffic, parking and a lack of opportunity for input by residents, business owners and the county before the event was announced.

King said the discussion with AEG happened quickly and over a few days just before the tour announcement Nov. 27.

“It wasn’t that anybody was trying to hide anything,” he said. “It’s kind of a shame that it happened this fast because it would have eased a lot of people’s concerns if there had been more time to get people involved to talk about it.”

County officials said they’ll work with AEG on a route and ensure adequate access for residents, employees in Avila Beach (including at Diablo Canyon) and emergency vehicles,  Deputy Public Works Director Dave Flynn said.

In past years, the CHP has handled rolling road closures throughout the event. Flynn said the county would work with AEG and the CHP, as it has in past years, to discuss the route and evaluate the best scenario for the area.

“It’s really a process of getting everything on the table, evaluating what’s going to work and going through proper notifications,” he said. “Avila has a lot of constraints to it, but we’re certainly willing to work with them, see what they propose and then make adjustments.”

Flynn said the county hasn’t received a formal proposal yet.

Blair Jones, a spokesman for PG&E, said the utility is in the early stages of coordinating with the county to assess the route and timing so it can plan accordingly.

About 1,400 employees work at the plant, with about 900 working on-site during the day. It’s unknown at this time how many people would be working at the plant May 16.

“We have no safety concerns with the race occurring in Avila as many large community events are hosted here and in each case we effectively plan and prepare with the county to minimize impacts to the plant and our employees,” Jones said in an email.

Valuable exposure

Meanwhile, some local business owners are looking forward to the event and the attention it will bring.

“Avila Beach is like a little unknown jewel that’s becoming more known all the time,” said Carl Barbettini of Fat Cat’s Café at Port San Luis. “This tour is going to get us more exposure, and people will actually know that Avila is there.”

Bill Price, who with his wife, Linda, owns Beachcomber Bill’s, Sea Barn, Footseas and Hula Hut, said the carefully planned tour finish could have less of an impact on the area than other events.

The unexpected arrival of humpback whales in August, for example, clogged much of Avila Beach Road with bumper-to-bumper traffic for several days as people traveled to get a glimpse of them.

“It’s in the middle of the week in May — what could it hurt?” he said. “I have faith in the permitting process and CHP and Cal Fire. They’re going to have input in keeping the area safe.”

Down the street from Price’s shops, Peloton Cellars general manager Trish Kesselring said they plan to install a television in the tasting room so people can watch the tour throughout the week in May.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

The winery’s four owners, all cyclists, decided on the name because of their love of the sport and its representation of who they are as a group, Kesselring said. The word peloton means the main body of riders in a bicycle race.

“We are ecstatic,” she said. “We’re a new, small business. We are trying to grow, so in that aspect we’re excited. It will be a lot of exposure for us.”

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