Without the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race coming to town, the City of Nome and many commercial establishments expect to take a financial loss this year as one of Nome’s biggest tourist events falls casualty to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of all the festivity that normally takes place in Nome, the final week of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has been called the “Mardi Gras of the North.”
Eager visitors from Alaska and around the world spill out from restaurants, bars, hotels and shops to watch elite dog sledding teams finish the race beneath the Burled Arch, the famous landmark marking the end of the nearly 1,000-mile race.
But that didn’t happen this year.
Out of COVID-19 concerns, the Iditarod Trail Committee skipped the Bering Sea Coast, including Nome, and re-routed the race back to Willow.
“Well, it doesn’t feel good. That’s kind of a bad feeling. It got to be demoralizing for everyone,” said Ronald Locke who owns the local favorite, Breakers Bar, that stands yards away from the Iditarod’s traditional finish line in Nome. And in March, it’s always crowded.
“It’s a big month. You have a lot of people in here, you doubled and tripled the population. A lot of people go and stay in our camps for the time that Iditarod is going on so they rent their houses out. This place is full of people, they’re eating, the restaurants are all full. And it’s pretty much gone,” he said.
The past year has been hard for Locke and Breakers Bar. While they were able to be open most of the summer, the governor’s orders shut them down halfway through the 2020 Iditarod.
They also lost the holiday season when Nome saw its worst outbreak of COVID-19 and the city government shutdown indoor dining and drinking.
While it’s still a big moneymaker, Locke comes to rely on the Iditarod less and less.
“But yeah, this Iditarod’s gonna hurt. But they’ve slowed down the last three, four years. That’s another thing too,” he said.
He speculates that the loss of several big sponsors, like Alaska Airlines and the outdoor specialty retailer Cabela’s, discourages visitors.
Dips in bed and sales tax collections in 2018 and 2019 could be from slower Iditarod seasons, Nome’s city finance director speculates. Another seasonal event — the Lonnie O’Connor Iditarod Basketball Tournament — brings visitors from all over the Bering Strait region. The tournament is also canceled this year. City Manager Glenn Steckman said those March festivities bring in money that gets spread far around the city.
“That’s roughly 800 to a million dollars less of outside money coming into the community, fresh money. And that is going to have an impact,” Steckman said. “And Iditarod for many in the hospitality industry was something that could hold them over until the summer recreational and tourism season began.”
At a 5% sales tax, Steckman estimates that could be up to $50,000 in sales tax that the city budget won’t see this March.
It’s not surprising that bed tax is down after a visit to the Nome Nugget Inn. Jason Song bought the hotel and its two adjoining restaurants in 2019. During the weeks of Iditarod, those rooms are coveted as they overlook the mushers arriving on Front Street. But not this March. Song said with a shake of his head, “Right now, it’s almost empty.” He has used the Paycheck Protection Program and local government assistance to get his staff and business through the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many, he is hoping for more tourism this summer as the vaccination rate in Alaska continues to increase.
But Iditarod tourism expands to more than just the week that mushers are in Nome. The Iditarod is a part of Nome’s cultural identity, Steckman said, and its reputation brings people to Nome throughout the year.
“People who can’t visit maybe during the Iditarod period, come up on cruise ships and other ways to say, ‘Okay, hey, I want to go see where all of this that I’ve heard about happens, which is Nome, Alaska.’ And so there is a marketing aspect to this too,” Steckman said.
For some vendors, they said sharing the lifestyle and culture of a unique place like Nome is what they’ll miss the most this year.
Dr. Kamey Kapp-Worland owns The Dog Lot, LLC. The optometrist and dog musher partners with outside tour vendors to get tourists on her sled.
“If the random person comes in that maybe is a little skeptical about dog mushing and how we take care of them and what we do with them if we can change their mind and show them how loved these animals are, that realistically, they live on my couch half the time, you know, we’ve done a service,” Kapp-Worland said.
If tourism continues to slow down, Kapp-Worland said she’ll have to pay for their dog team out of pocket — and because mushing is part of her lifestyle — she will continue to do that. But she said her outside career affords her the opportunity when mushing off the road-system is becoming prohibitively expensive.
“I would say that any given year, my dogs earn their kibble in that two weeks that we do tours. And so we probably made a quarter last year of what we normally do,” Kapp-Worland said.
Back on Front Street, some workers feel cautiously optimistic — although they’ll miss the income an Iditarod normally brings in.
Vanessa Connors has served and bartended in Nome for over 10 years. This year, income has been tricky. She received a mix of assistance from state and local government relief programs — and periods where the bar has been open. But even without Iditarod, she’s starting to see the light.
“With everyone getting vaccinated. People are slowly more comfortable coming out. Just this past week alone has picked up a lot,” Connors said.
The Norton Sound Health Corporation reports that the city’s vaccination rate has reached 70% — one of the highest rates in the country. In Nome, many hope that life can return to normal, even if that means missing out on the 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.