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The City of Maquoketa relinquished its RAGBRAI hosting duties in 2021.

A consensus of Maquoketa City Council last week decided to forego hosting the final night of RAGBRAI (Register’s Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Council members cited numerous health and safety concerns as well as sizable construction projects that made them “uncomfortable” bringing so many people to town.

A replacement city had not been named as of Monday evening.

The decision was not an easy one, council members conceded, including Councilwoman Jessica Kean.

“It’s a painful decision to make,” Kean said. “Saying it and making it official hurts.”

However, making the decision to bow out so early may put Maquoketa in a positive position to host an overnight stay in coming years, Kean added.

An estimated 20,000 bicyclists plus their support staff, friends, and family were to descend on Maquoketa in July after RAGBRAI organizers tapped the city to host the final overnight stay July 30. The event would end days before the Jackson County Fair began. This year’s ride would have kicked off July 19 in Le Mars, with overnight stops in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa, and Maquoketa before ending with the traditional dipping of the tires in the Mississippi River in Clinton.

Then, COVID-19 cases escalated in the United States and health and safety concerns grew.

As a result, RAGBRAI organizers in April postponed this year’s race to July 25-31, 2021. However, the route would remain the same.

But 2021 comes with hurdles that 2020 did not have, Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce Director Wendy McCartt reminded the city council Oct. 5. 

First, the 2021 Jackson County Fair and RAGBRAI will be the same week next year. 

The situation could be managed, however. The two events coincided in 2004, which is the last time RAGBRAI spent the night in Maquoketa. 

However, fair attendance has grown significantly in the ensuing years, from 10,000 to 13,000 in the early 2000s to more than 50,000 paid attendance in 2019.

Hosting both events simultaneously would severely stretch local law enforcement’s resources and manpower, Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda told the council. The department would have to hire more officers and rely on more volunteers.

The city depended on the fairgrounds to house RAGBRAI participants. That space will not be available with the fair taking place at the same time next year, and hotel lodging would also be at a premium if those events occurred simultaneously, Councilman Nathan Woodward noted.

The lack of camping space concerned Councilwoman Erica Barker, who has ridden in past RAGBRAIs. She also was not “fully on board” with hosting RAGBRAI with so many construction projects occurring in the city. Those construction projects include Platt Street reconstruction and a proposed South Main Street bridge replacement.

The Platt Street project is scheduled to begin next year. The estimated $11 million resurfacing project encompasses both sides of Platt Street from Highway 61 to Highway 62. The project includes, among other things, new sidewalks, underground fiber optic cable, and new water and sewer infrastructure.

That work means tearing up one of two main arteries of the city and likely would not allow Maquoketa to “put its best foot forward” to the thousands of people wheeling into the city with RAGBRAI, McCartt said. All guests here should be treated to a good time and kept safe, she told the council.

South Main Street Bridge could have posed an even larger problem, closing the street and thereby cutting and rerouting traffic trying to head south out of Maquoketa. The RAGBRAI route was headed south to Clinton from Maquoketa. The city and Jackson County jointly own the bridge and are partnering to replace it.

However, Maquoketa Public Works Director Frank Ellenz said that bridge replacement project will not begin until 2022. 

Of course, the ongoing pandemic also poses health and safety concerns, McCartt said. No one knows what course the pandemic will take next year nor what size crowds will be allowed.

“There are a lot of questions,” McCartt said.

RAGBRAI also would have lost numerous volunteers to the fair, she told the council. 

“The deck is really stacked against us for next year,” Kean said.

Councilman Josh Collister agreed with Kean, saying that hosting both events in the midst of construction would be “an impossible task,” although he would have supported the majority council’s decision.

“Letting (RAGBRAI organizers) know now puts us in the hunt for the next year,” Collister added.

In addition to the public exposure RAGBRAI brings to overnight host communities, Maquoketa loses the possibility of an economic boon, as RAGBRAI participants require lodging, food, and other amenities. 

“This will no doubt be a substantial economic boost for our town,” McCartt said when the 2020 route was announced earlier this year.

Maquoketa last hosted the bicycle ride in 2004 — only the third time in the ride’s history and the eighth time the ride spent the night or ended in Jackson County. Maquoketa was an overnight host in 1994 and 1978.

The ride ended in Bellevue in 1989, 1991, 1999 and 2002. Sabula was the final stop in 1998.