Cancellation of Seattle to Portland Ride Causes Financial Pain for Community Nonprofits: “This Hits Us Hard.”

Free holiday meals, books for children, and college athletic scholarships are a few of the good causes impacted by the COVID-19 related cancellation of the Pacific Northwest’s largest group bike ride, STP, which is an economic engine for many towns along the route.

For the up to 8,000 people who ride in the Pacific Northwest’s largest annual group bicycling event, the Kaiser Permanente Seattle to Portland Presented by Alaska Airlines, the cancellation of the 2020 event due to COVID-19 is a sad loss. 

But for many small communities and nonprofit organizations along the route of the 206-mile, two-day ride, known as STP, the cancellation will have dire financial consequences. STP is more than a ride: it is an economic engine that supports everything from community food banks to college scholarships and children’s literacy programs. 

“This hits us pretty hard,” says Timothy White, president of the nonprofit Small Acts of Kindness, which usually raises about $3,000--half of its annual fundraising--by selling food and drinks at a rest stop along the STP route in Winlock, Wash. White uses that revenue to pay for Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday meal boxes with turkeys, potatoes, vegetables and more to about 100 low-income families in Lewis County. 

“We will have to figure out how to go forward with the program this year,” says White, whose organization also donates money to support local girls sports teams and a free clothing bank, among other things. 

For Cascade Bicycle Club, which gets the lion’s share of its revenue from STP and other large bike rides and events, pulling the plug on STP, which was to be held on July 18 and 19 for the 41st time, was a major financial blow. 

"STP is not just the challenge of a lifetime for our 8,000 riders, it's also a major benefit for small local nonprofits that are doing incredible work on shoestring budgets along the route," said Rebecca Sorensen, Events and Rides Community Director. "It was heartbreaking to have to cancel this year because we know how much this means to everyone, but we are now working to support our nonprofit partners in other ways."

Those other ways include generating revenue by selling STP T-shirts, and raising money through the virtual STP “Quaranteam” that Cascade hopes to put on in July--with proceeds going directly to nonprofits along the route. Cascade will publicize how people can participate in those fundraising opportunities as the details are finalized.

In a typical year, Cascade distributes more than $100,000 of STP rider registration fees to pay nonprofits and community groups to operate feed stations, and to provide food and drinks, first aid, bike mechanics, toilets, and other services to participants. Those payments had to be canceled this year.

The event’s total economic impact is estimated at more than $2 million annually, including all of the spending by the 8,000 riders and the more than 20,000 spectators and family members who pay for food, gas, hotels and more in communities from Seattle to Portland.

“We are trying to figure out how to make up for the revenue loss,” says Ilona Kerby, executive director of Lower Columbia CAP, which operates a Meals on Wheels program in the Lexington, Wash., area. Cascade pays $6,400 to the nonprofit group Altrusa to manage a food stop in Lexington, and another $2,000 to Lower Columbia CAP to make sandwiches for riders. All of that money goes to support local causes. 

Altrusa spends the funds on its “Backpack Buddies” program that provides food to schoolchildren of low-income families, loading up their backpacks on Fridays so the kids have enough to eat over the weekend. STP funds also support Altrusa’s “Let’s Read” literacy program, which provides free books to elementary school kids. And any leftover food from the weekend is donated to local food banks.

“STP is one of the two biggest fundraisers of the year for us,” says Kerby. The other is a 4th of July celebration, which has also been canceled. “We are getting a double whammy with our two biggest fundraisers going away.”

Centralia College raises up to $30,000 from its STP stop to support its women’s volleyball, soccer, basketball, fast-pitch softball, and golf teams, and its men’s basketball and baseball teams that in total field about 120 student athletes. The college generates the revenue by renting rooms and camping spots to riders, selling food, providing wireless internet access, massages, hot showers, and a beer garden with live music. 

The college will dip into its reserve funds to support its athletes this year, but in coming years, “unless additional funding can be secured, we will be forced to look at reductions for these programs,” says Stephen Ward, the college’s VP of finance and administration.

The St. Helens High School marching band typically makes between $10,000 and $14,000 during STP weekend, serving sandwiches and granola bars as well as drinks and coffee. In addition to the payment from Cascade, “the riders also tip us pretty well,” says band director Noelle Freshner. 

Proceeds from STP cover about a third of the marching band budget. In addition to canceling the band’s competition schedule, “I had to cut my staff by two-thirds, and cut my music budget down substantially,” says Freshner.

Spanaway Middle School makes about $10,000 from its contract with Cascade to prepare sandwiches. The school volunteers put in three days of work to prepare, as the stop is 50 miles from the starting line and frequented by the largest number of STP riders. Portland Bicycle Club receives $25,000 to run the finish line, and it hires other Portland area nonprofits to supply volunteers to provide essential services to riders. 

Portland Bicycling Club, which supports a wide range of organizations with its earnings from operating the finish line, will have to greatly reduce or eliminate those donations. “I can only speculate on the financial health of the organizations we donated to, but I would not be surprised to see some fail,” says Corey Eng, treasurer of Portland Bicycling Club.

“We Will Miss All of the Riders”

Cascade riders are generous, kind, and happy when they encounter a food stop or community group, and the spirit of their participation will be missed as much as their economic impact.

“Our band members have loved STP, and we have an absolute blast. It’s a chance to bring our families together, and the riders are all great,” says Freshner, who organizes about 150 volunteers including band members, family and alumni to work. “It’s crazy but fun. We have people serving food, people working in kitchens preparing food, and our runners going back and forth.”

All of the organizations interviewed by Cascade noted how STP is more than a fundraiser--it’s an event that unites neighbors, creates friendships, and fosters community spirit.

“STP helps us teach the concept of community service and volunteerism to our student athletes,” says Ward. 

Kerby has attended nearly every STP since 1989, and she enjoys the excitement and sense of goodwill the ride generates. “We will miss all of the riders,” she says. “If they have enjoyed their stop in Lexington, please show us your love by sending a few dollars our way so that we can continue serving our community.”

White has set up a Facebook page where people can donate to Small Acts of Kindness. “We hope riders will help and continue to support our mission in this very difficult time. We appreciate all that the organizers and riders do to help our mission and support our community,” he says. “This event helps support so many in need through nonprofits like ours.”