Economic reality of Ironman Morro Bay

May 28, 2023

An empty Dockside on Saturday at 2 p.m. during Ironman


Open letter to Morro Bay Mayor Wixom and City Council members,

The sting of the financial impacts of this past weekend have eased however, my fiduciary duty to Dockside and my personal responsibility to my 60 staff members have caused me to question how the City of Morro Bay allowed this to happen.

Some very interesting information is available when one looks beyond the hype and spin that is created to promote an event such as the Ironman in such a small community as ours. In matter-of-fact Morro Bay at 10,000 residents is the smallest city in the USA to host such a disruptive event. The next closest to us is Coeur d Alene, Idaho at 55,000, then Santa Cruz, California at 63,00, and all other host cities exceed 100,000 residents all the way to 1.9 million residents for Panama City, Florida.

The World Triathlon Corporation which Ironman is a part of is a multi-million-dollar company that uses public resources all over the world to drive their brand, and generate large profits.

We know that Morro Bay waived all city permit fees and parking lot fees as well as our staff predicting a cost to the city of $55,000. This was to include staff costs for police, fire, and maintenance, etc., and logistics to include parking, shuttling, waste management.

“Visit Morro Bay” was to pay the $30,000 for the sponsor fee as well as provide Ironman support staff with lodging.

But what will be the actual cost to Morro Bay? What will be the actual cost to “Visit Morro Bay?” What will be the actual cost to the taxpayers of our city as well as the state? And what will be the cost to businesses whose regular visitors and locals were displaced? I encourage you to ask the hard questions and get the real answers. Not the spin, not the smoke and mirrors, and definitely not the hype!

There were at least 10 different law enforcement agencies present, including bomb squads, K-9 units, SWAT vehicles teams, California Highway Patrol, and scores of water rescue staff and their watercraft including the United States Coast Guard. The staging of Highway 1, and the staging of our city’s waterways and streets, state and city staffing costs along with overtime pay must be staggering.

These costs were not just for race day or days leading up to race day. One must remember staff’s time started last June when we were told how grand this event would be and how everyone would benefit.

We were told that when approved there was not much public input, but how does one give public input when all the impacts were downplayed and many of the specifics about the race were unknown. The parking plan was not even in place until a few weeks ago which resulted in intimidating no parking signs placed days in advance of their actual required posting. We also dealt with flashing billboards that whose entire message was unreadable unless one drove by them three or four times.

We were also told that Ironman participants are more socially and economically successful than the usual visitor to Morro Bay.  Whether valid or not, I find that kind of rhetoric disgusting as well as disappointing. Many of our businesses were built from the support of people who have already found Morro Bay and enjoy who we are, not what we are trying to be.

I am sure that some businesses did well, really well. I assume that the hotel industry had a strong week as lodging rates were doubled and tripled. Likewise, local groceries stores appeared to be busier than usual.

However; Dockside and its staff took a beating! Our revenues for the weekend were down at least 50% starting Friday and continuing through race day.

On race day our main restaurant had the worst lunch in its 19-year history. Our Fish Market saw virtually zero fresh fish sales on race day. Both of our locations starting feeling the punch well in advance of the weekend.

The confusion and displacement for our regular visitors was costly. Our labor costs were up at least 25% as we prepared for the influx of patrons as race planners and officials had promised but we never saw. The one bump in business that we did experience lasted for about two hours on race day as we did have a brief but good breakfast. Thank God!

The city has agreed to have the Ironman back for two more years. Now that we know what to expect for the inevitable future, it is imperative that we plan now and learn from the lessons learned this year. They do not have to shut down the Embarcadero or other portions of our town as seen this year. There are many locations this event can be staged, without displacing regular visitors to Morro Bay.  It is vital the we explore other options prior to giving away our city next year.

In general, events as a whole discourage Morro Bay’s regular visitors wherever they are from. When our regular visitors and locals alike are displaced, events like the Harbor Festival and Avocado Margarita festival begin to die. They get too big and elaborate as well as expensive. The organizers forget their roots.

Bigger is not better. More expensive does not mean the best. That is why simple things like the Kite Festival and the new Maritime Museum Family Fun Day are having such great grass-roots success.

The City of Morro Bay needs to learn how to accommodate those that already visit us. Keep our bathrooms open and clean. Keep the trash picked up. And keep our traffic and parking managed. Businesses should not be allowed to price gouge and should offer our visitors a fair and good value for their services.

Please… as our elected officials… do not do this to us again! The accumulative effects of this and most other events that shut down our town are destroying who we are and who we serve. I for one do not need your help, but please do not harm me!

Captain Mark M. Tognazzini is a life-long resident of the Morro Bay community, has fished commercially from the Mexican border to Alaska, and owns and operatives Dockside Restaurants and Dockside Seafood.

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I’m not sure that it is up to the city to draw people to your business. They along with the event organizers drew 5000 people that spent $ throughout town. Unfortunately it sounds like you didn’t benefit from that, but, I have to ask, what did you do to insure success? Did you obtain a list of participants from the organizer to market to them? Did you sponsor anything? What about the Chamber or the City’s Economic Development staff? Did you seek their counsel in how to benefit from this event? I am guessing there were a number of planning meetings leading up to the event where promoting your business may have been a topic. Did you participate? The fact is, to be successful in todays’ word one must do a bit more than hang an open sign. Promotion of your business is essential.

Mr. Tognazzini – I appreciate you sharing your opinion and am sorry to hear that you were harmed during this weekend.

I’d like to kindly provide some corrections to your second paragraph about communities that host Ironman events. Morro Bay is not the smallest community in the USA to host. Frankfort, Michigan at a mere 1,252 is the smallest. The next smallest is Benton Harbor, Michigan at 9,103. Sticking with the 2020 US Census numbers, Morro Bay comes in at the third place with 10,757. Note that there are other host communities of very similar size to Morro Bay such as Geneva, New York at 12,812 and Cambridge, Maryland at 13,096.

There is confusion about different cities named Panama City.

–Panama City Beach, Florida at 18,094 hosts two Ironman events each year – one in the spring and one in the fall.

–Panama City, Florida (32,939) is not an Ironman host, but it is adjacent to the Panama City Beach community.

–Panama City in the country of Panama is the city with a population of 1.9 million. This city in Panama does host an Ironman event too.

Ironman has 40+ events each year in the USA, and they are hosted by both very small and very large communities. I hope the small sample above was helpful and provides clarity.

Dockside restaurant appears to be in an excellent physical location in relation to the event’s hub. If the Ironman event happens in future years in Morro Bay, I hope that you’re able to find a way to make it a successful one for your business.

Sounds like Morro bit off more than local business can swallow. Why do public official and city staff push these large-scale events that don’t fit into the small communities? 1) They miss the metropolitan lifestyle they left and are trying to recreate it here. 2) They are trying to pad their resumes so they can move to the big city for big money.

Either way please go, leave us to our small-town ways we like it the way it is.