Riedmann: Birkie draws millions of dollars to northern Wisconsin

The Birkebeiner is expected to work its economic magic in northwest Wisconsin again this year by drawing thousands of people to ski, watch and volunteer at North America’s premier cross country ski marathon.

It will infuse between $4 million and $7 million into the region’s economy over five days later this month, drawing 8,000 skiers and 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. If you’re looking for hotel space in the Northwoods to take in the race, forget it. Some rooms have been booked for a year for the races, which this year will be Feb. 24-26.

WisBusiness.com’s Brian Leaf caught up with Shirley Riedmann, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation the past three years, to talk about the race and its impact.

Leaf: Tell me how this year’s race is shaping up.

Riedmann: The course is in good condition. We’re grooming everyday. People are skiing on it everyday. The whole course is about 34 miles from the Cable area to Hayward. We have probably well over 5,600 skiers registered for the long and the short race right now. And we have another 76 scheduled for our new race, the 12K. For our main races we’re expecting more than 6,000 again this year. We have over 1,000 children who ski the Barnebirke, and another 400 in the Junior Birkie.

Leaf: Any idea what the economic impact the races have on the region?

Riedmann: It brings millions to the region in terms of lodging, equipment, restaurants. The sales tax for the month of February is the highest in the county at anytime of the year. I’ve seen it quoted at $7 million, but I’m not sure. Every hotel in the region and resort in the area is full. Most people fill up from the year before.

Leaf: So a lot of your racers are repeat people?

Riedmann: Yes. The greater percentage of our skiers have skied 10 Birkies or more. We have about 400 of what we call Birch Leggings, people who have skied 20 or more Birkies. That number keeps growing.

Leaf: What are the demographics of the race?

Riedmann: The average age of our skiers is early to late 50s. And it’s probably 65 to 70 percent male. Probably 45 percent come from Minnesota and 40 percent from Wisconsin. Of course, we have people who come from the other states, and from around the world.

Leaf: So what makes this race so special?

Riedmann: Well, it’s the largest, most prestigious cross country ski race in North America. There isn’t another one like it. It is considered the diamond at the top of the mountain for elite skiers because it is the only cross country ski race that goes through a forest. We’re in the Chequamegon National Forest. We start in Bayfield County and we come down through Sawyer County. It’s 34 miles of forest. And it’s very hilly and challenging. We have people come from other parts of the world and tell us that it’s the best cross country race course in the world and the best maintained.

And people can use it all year round. Most courses are used just for skiing. Ours is used for biking; hiking, running, you can hunt on it, snowshoe on it. There are no motorized vehicles allowed on it. So it’s a very unique trail. The county owns it and the Birkie maintains it. It’s a gorgeous trail. It goes right through the heart of the forest. It has very few access points so it’s very controlled.

Leaf: What are you seeing in terms of weather?

Riedmann: As long as it stays cold at night, we’re all right. We could use 2 to 3 inches of snow a couple of times before the race. We’re not interested in big storms because it puts pressure on us to get it groomed. If we continue to get snow, a little bit each day that will help. We’re planning a full race. And being in northwest Wisconsin, we’re in the heart of winter. So we are anticipating a full race. The issue right now is with the freezing and the thawing – the ice. We’re more concerned about safety than about running the race. We have pockets where the runoff has collected. It has turned into ice and is covered with snow. If someone falls or slips, it can cause a chain reaction. But people are skiing it. It’s fast. It’s icy. We just have to remind people to be careful when they come down a hill and into one of these gullies, as I like to call them.

Leaf: It sounds like you have a pretty big business. How many people are employed by the race?

Riedmann: We have two full-timers and myself. We have one part-timer who works year round and two part-timers that come in. And we have 2,200 volunteers. The administrative overhead is small, but we count on those volunteers to help us pull this off.

Leaf: That’s a lot of volunteers to manage. How do you do that?

Riedmann: We have race chiefs and each of them has a responsibility like bussing, snow transportation or food stations. Everybody knows their job. They get their volunteers and we just depend on them. They’re here every year for us.

Leaf: Where does the money from the race go?

Riedmann: Everything we collect for the race goes back into the race, all the entry fees and sponsorships are used to put on the race, grants for high school kids for cross country skiing. Very little is left. We basically break even every year. We invest just enough in case something would happen to the race and we would have to cover some bills. We’re a non-profit organization. Our intent is no to ask money.