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April 26, 2012
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Tracking the cash

A field of area businesses races to capitalize on the economic impact of the Drake Relays

By Amber Williams

Alex Etgeton, Brian Howard, Clint Cowan and Mike Andersen of the Pike Fraternity helped spruce up the University Library Café in preparation for the Drake Relays party this weekend. They were paid with a nice bar tab, which the students decided to donate to the returning Pike alumni who are expected to revisit the old haunt for the festivities.(Photo by Amber Williams)

A “drove,” as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a crowd of people moving or acting together. As defined by Des Moines, it’s the Drake Relays. Drake Stadium is a true exhibit of the Iowa-coined adage, “If you build it, they will come,” and year after year they come in droves to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods to partake in one of its most celebrated and illustrious events.

The Drake Relays draws about 40,000 spectators and 8,000 “of the world’s best” competitors annually, according to Mark Kostek, vice president of Sports and Development at the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau — generating an average of $5 million for the city annually.

“I cannot speak of the economic impact in the Drake Neighborhood specifically, because we do not have a mechanism in place to gauge that,” Kostek said. “However, by just observing the flow of people in the Dogtown area, I would think that the Relays would have a significant impact on the area.

“The hotels are the primary source of housing in the Greater Des Moines area and run at a very high occupancy rate during the week of the Relays,” he said. “Usually, the Drake Relays fans spend their time at the stadium, at restaurants, movie theaters and shopping at our area malls and boutique shops in the metro.”

Business is booming

Jake Schucler serves customers on a busy lunch hour at Woody’s Smoke Shack, which is expecting crowds of more than 1,000 for its hog roast party this weekend. (Photo by Amber Williams)

While some Drake Relays visitors undoubtedly venture off to downtown and west side shopping districts, much of the herd stays close to Dogtown, where a stroll down University or Forest Avenue offers people everything they need without losing their precious parking spots.

Remaining true to tradition, the weeks building up to the three-day event mean planning, cramming and crunching for the small shop and restaurant owners in the neighborhood as they brace for an impact that’s proven to be profitable — the most lucrative time of year, in fact, according to Woody Wasson, owner of Woody’s Smoke Shack and chairman of the Drake Business Committee.

“It has a big impact on the neighborhood with all the fans and athletes in town that week,” Wasson said. “It’s how we kick off our summer season at the Smoke Shack. Business grows, and it gets busy after that. It’s like a springboard here with the Drake Relays, and after that, business really takes off.”

Wasson said his meat orders and other food supplies are doubled during the Relays, and this year, he’s even bringing the barbecue to the streets.

“Drake came to us and said they had asked some of the On-the-Roads Marathon runners what they wanted, and they said they wanted barbecue. So, Drake asked us if we could do something, and we put this together with our committee,” he said.

The hog roast will be held on the lawn at the corner of Cottage Grove and 25th Street, offering live entertainment. Wasson predicts as many as 500 on Friday and 800 on Saturday will attend, making this likely to be a first annual event for Woody’s Smoke Shack.

“The first 400 On-the-Roads Marathon runners get a free pork sandwich, drink and chips,” Wasson said, but all are welcome to feast on the beast Friday and Saturday, April 27-28, where “it’s always bring-your-own-beer-or-wine.”

Woody’s will also employ extra staff that weekend, as will many other Dogtown merchants. Other business owners, such as Larry James of Mars Café, said staff is enhanced, supplies are boosted and hours are often extended to accommodate for the masses. He said a surplus of coffee beans is a must, and he increases his bread order from Le Mie Bakery by about 25 percent.

“It’s always a great event for us every year,” James said. “It’s a huge boost for business. It’s exciting to see the runners and the fans come through. You can always tell the runners from everyone else because they’re more in shape,” he laughed.

James said the extras he purchases for the boom in business is proportionate to the increase in sales: “25 percent across the board.”

“It’s a lot better now that people know we’re here,” he said. “People from years past come back, and word spreads among the runners and everyone that this is a good place to grab a coffee or lunch. It’s definitely increased as word of mouth spreads.”

New to the neighborhood, Francy Pants owner Emily Zach hopes that word of mouth spreads her way this year, too, as this is her first time experiencing the influx of Drake Relayers as a local business owner.

“I’m just really excited,” she said. “I know I’m going in completely blind. I came to the Relays in high school, and I’ve lived in Des Moines enough years. But, besides that, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Zach said she plans to keep her store, a women’s eclectic clothing boutique located at 2417 University Ave., open longer hours in hopes to entice some curious shoppers.

“I’m really anxious to see what it’ll do. But I know the weather plays into the whole thing,” she said. “So, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for good Relays weather.”

That sentiment is echoed by James and Wasson, as well, as nice weather allows for Relay-goers to venture farther away from the stadium. For places like Woody’s Smoke Shack on Cottage Grove, and especially the University Library Café at 3506 University Ave., that amounts to several blocks.

“Our flow depends on weather,” James said about Mars Café (2318 University Ave.). “If it’s nicer out, people may choose to venture farther away from the stadium. On the other hand, refugees from the stadium itself have come in for a warm spot to sit out the storm. So it really is weather specific.”

Regardless of the highs and lows Mother Nature can bring, all agree the Drake Relays is an event the neighborhood business owners and staff look forward to all year long — save for places like hookah bar, Chicha Shack, for example, which has never benefited from the Drake Relays over the years, according to the owner.

“If we sold food, we might bring in a crowd, but we don’t,” said owner Mo Ali. “It’s not our kind of event,” which is OK, as the smoking habit is apparently alive and well enough in Dogtown to keep Chicha Shack in business for the last eight years.

It may be futile for the smoke shop, but those who cater to the drinkers tell another story. The internationally-known sporting event — the athletes of which tend to veer from such popular impurities as tobacco, alcohol and fatty foods — is an oxymoronic example of how fitness and fatness can coexist harmoniously at one celebration. Staples like Peggy’s and the University Library Café have continued success year after year, welcoming thousands of Relay-goers for food and brew throughout the three-day event.

Two Full Court Press partners are Dogtown residents and have had their sights on the Drake Relays ever since they re-opened the University Library Café at the start of the year.

“Down the road, the Relays won’t be a make or break for us, I don’t think, but this year it’s going to be a good chance for us to make a good amount of money to help pay down some of those leftover bills from opening,” said partner owner Jeff Bruning. “The University Library has always had good business that week at this location every year, but definitely this year it will be helpful. We’re doing pretty well already, but this will give us that extra shot in the arm.”

As a long-standing neighborhood bar, Bruning said the University Library Café is celebrating all that is Drake for the Relays. Not only does he expect most of the crowd to be Drake University alumni and past Library regulars, but original University Library owner Chip Coil will also be in the house for the party this weekend. Two special former patrons will be returning as well, and like any popular guest, they’re bringing their own beer. Drake graduates Paul Krutzfeldt and Scott Lehnert, owners of Great River Brewery in Davenport, will be at the Library for the Relays party promoting some local flavors.

“We’re calling it a tap takeover,” Bruning said, describing six Great River beers that will be on tap at the Library for the party. “This is going to be a good opportunity for us to show all the people who have been here in the past what we’ve done with the place, so they can see it for themselves and tell us what they think,” Bruning said, specifically highlighting a tent party that will bring the drinkers and a breakfast menu that is sure to fuel athletes and their fans over the weekend.

The tent party is running from Wednesday, April 25 (for a Relays Warm Up Party with music and beer specials beginning at 5 p.m.), throughout the weekend with live music from Brother Trucker, DJ Decepticon, Limbs and Guilty Pleasures and culminates to a “Relays Recovery” breakfast on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, Bruning said.

“The weather looks like it’s going to be pretty good, which makes everything even better,” Bruning said. “Everyone is used to the rain on the Relays, but when it’s nice it’s going to get real busy.”

Whether the business is a new fixture to Dogtown, like Francy Pants, an old haunt that’s been revamped, like the Library, or a neighborhood staple like Woody’s Smoke Shack, the numbers speak for themselves proving the Drake Relays is a milestone for area merchants year after year.

A tourism tradition

Although the Drake Relays has a history a century long of drawing tourism to Dogtown, the event and its people hasn’t always been what it is today, according to Kostek. It has grown from its inception in 1910 from a regional track event to a nationally prominent competition during the late 1950s and ’60s to the international celebration of athletics (what the rest of the world calls track and field) that it is today, he said.

Compared to other track and field events, the Drake Relays is unique because of its history and because of its annual reoccurrence drawing thousands of athletes to Des Moines, he said.

“We have been very fortunate to have such a wonderful run of national championships in Des Moines every year, because most of them (such as the NCAA Track and Field Championships and the USA Track and Field Championships, both of which respectively generate about $4.5 million in revenue for Des Moines annually) are competitive bids. They are not guaranteed to return to Des Moines from one year to the next,” Kostek said. “We’re fortunate to have the support of the community and a great partnership with Drake University, which has been critical to the success of hosting national events here.”

But the Drake Relays is a guarantee, and it’s a near certainty that the city will gain about $5 million from hosting it every year, in addition to the other national and international sporting events it gains through the bidding processes.

In 2002, the Relays added the Thursday distance carnival. Then, with the renovation and the addition of lights, the Friday “under the lights” session was added.

“Now, with the Tuesday Grand Blue Mile and the Wednesday Mall Vault, the impact continues to grow,” Kostek said, drawing spectators and competitors from more than 40 states and 70 countries.

“The Drake Relays have a long history of sellout crowds for the Saturday session. This year, I believe, will be its 48th consecutive year if achieved,” Kostek said. “The number of competitors has increased over the past decade as the schedule expanded. The Drake Relays is a great event that serves Greater Des Moines in many ways; economic impact and community pride are just a couple that are very prominent.”

As a former director of the Drake Relays, Kostek says the event has a special place in his heart, despite the special place the event also has in the budgets of local merchants.

“The Relays are a unique event. Nationally, we are compared with other track and field festivals and rank very high. In the state of Iowa it would be hard to rank, but I would be comfortable in saying the Drake Relays are certainly in the top 25 annual events in our state,” Kostek said. “In my opinion, the Relays are great for the Des Moines metro, the Drake neighborhood and for Drake University. Besides the economic impact, the Relays provides a sense of pride in the greater Des Moines community and is shared with the nation and the world. It is a great event that has been celebrated for 103 years.” CV



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