Hood River needs people to help save Gorge Games

Commentary

I remember walking into Peg Lalor’s second floor office, no bigger than a closet, back in 1996.

Lalor explained that she had an idea, and that as Sports Editor of the Hood River News, my help in getting the word out would be vital. She wanted to produce a sports and music festival centered around the lifestyle of the Gorge. It was going to be called the “Gorge Games.”

I sat across from her desk thinking it was a good idea, and I told her I would do whatever I could to help. She was driven and excited. Her hunch that such a festival might work actually paid off.

Lalor, along with a small army of tireless volunteers and an office staff of two, put together a sports and music festival that eventually caught the interest of NBC.

Not bad ... But not so good either.

I was here in ‘96 when it was just 10 photographers on a cliff along the Upper White Salmon River, watching world-class kayakers tumble over Big Brother in an awesome display of sport and nature.

At night, the good energy continued with music that helped form a community feeling around the Games.

And I was also here last year, with Ford as the title sponsor, when NBC cameras were capturing footage that was sure to set a permanent national stage for the Games. Both scenarios had their advantages, but the Games never really found a home either way.

This year, the title sponsor Ford, pulled out — just as Nike, Timberland, Subaru and others have come and gone with sponsorship dollars over the years.

The economy hit the skids and Ford didn’t get the necessary support from its regional dealerships, which left the Gorge Games until Feb. 15 of this year to find a new title sponsor.

Two weeks ago, I watched the deadline come and go with little fuss from the community.

The combination of corporate hedging and lack of community support has realistically gutted a Gorge festival that had such promise. It can still continue, but someone or perhaps some town (not to mention any names) should step to the plate.

Every July, Hood River receives the largest economic

influx of the summer from the Games. Hotels, restaurants, rental houses, gas stations, and yes, even the residents of Hood River, get a huge boost.

I’ve heard locals complain about the traffic and “full house” feeling. But what I haven’t heard anyone complain about is how much money in room-tax fees, food, gas, and other travel-related dollars circle through Hood River.

When that money isn’t here this summer, ask your friends that are business owners how their mid-July looks this year versus last.

Hood River, as town and as a community, needs income. This is a tried-and-true festival that accomplishes that every year. Is there nothing that can be done by our City Council and/or our County Commission to keep the discussion going on saving the Games?

The Games could also use a new image. Too many title sponsors have come and gone, hurting stability.

NBC came in and filmed the games like an NBA basketball game. Has anyone ever heard play-by-play kayaking or windsurfing? It’s ridiculous.

When the Games were small, they couldn’t get coverage. Going big overnight resulted in unplanned and poorly produced coverage. The festival lives and dies by its media play. That’s the bottom line.

Perhaps there is a way to finance the Games locally. There is talk of a new outdoor film festival starting in Hood River. How about pairing the two and making a complete cultural event? The Games could serve as the base for this partnership.

If Hood River could finance the Games, it could look to its local resources for promotion. There is a beautiful story to be told among the athletes, the wind, the waves and the mountain.

I have never been found more talented writers, photographers, videographers, etc., living in small community. A contract group of local talent could be assembled to promote, write, shoot and produce the Games. The money all stays at home.

This coverage would still have to be contracted and sold to a network and other print-media sources to profit, but it can be done.

Never in my life as a photographer have I gained such amazing footage. Athletes, artists, musicians and people who just love incredible nature, come from across the world for the Games.

Hood River is the mountain, orchards and timber. It is also wind, sun and the Columbia River.

I urge people to come to the community meeting on Wednesday at the Hood River Hotel and show your support for a growing tradition that is becoming just as much a part of the Gorge as its pears.

It would be a shame to let seven years of building an event that does so many things for Hood River slip through our fingers.

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Jim Semlor has been the staff photographer at the Hood River News since 1997, and has been involved with promoting the Gorge Games since their inception in 1996. Semlor can be reached at jsemlor@eaglenewspapers.com.

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