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Tanya Koopman of Bend gets some water from a support vehicle during the final leg of last year’s Hells Canyon Relay. At least one Hells Canyon Relay participant is alleging fraud since organizers canceled the event Friday. Ron Harper said he’s not sure when or if he will get a refund. (Observer file photo)
Hells Canyon Relay canceled, participants want money back
Financial burdens proved too much to overcome for organizers of the Hells Canyon Relay.
The second annual event was called off just before Labor Day, prompting some confusion and frustration from participants.
Brian Douglass, president of Smith Rock Race Group, the company that puts on the relay, had said earlier this month that the group would push to meet its fundraising goal and still envisioned holding the race.
The race was slated to end in La Grande’s Pioneer Park, though officials from the City of La Grande said outstanding fees from 2012 had not been paid and the park had not been reserved for the 2013 event.
In an email sent out to entrants Friday, Douglass said safety and financial issues ultimately led to the decision to not hold the relay this year.
“In terms of any refunds full or partial we need to look at what we can do and make an announcement in mid October,” Douglass said in the email.
For team captain Ron Harper, not knowing whether he will be refunded is not OK.
“You have to pay in advance and it’s a $1,400 entrance fee,” he said. “As recently as two weeks ago, I sent them another $200 to pay for volunteers. They cashed it without any problems.”
Harper, a Washington resident, said he has filed consumer complaints with the attorney general’s office in both Oregon and Washington state.
“It took us totally by surprise,” Harper said. Neither he nor his team members were aware of the relay’s financial woes.
Harper said he was fortunate that the hotels in Baker City and La Grande did not charge him for canceling, but that others’ travel plans were more costly.
“I had one young lady that was flying out from Connecticut, so she made her reservations months ago,” Harper said
The majority of the 12-person, Vancouver, Wash.-based team also had to take days off from work, he said.
Harper said some participants hit “reply all” to Douglass’s message, and “they weren’t happy.”
Harper had competed in the Cascade Lakes Relay, which Douglass helped start, but this would have been his first time doing the Hells Canyon Relay.
Douglass said the Eastern Oregon relay was patterned after the successful Cascade Lakes race, but the rural location made it difficult to secure funding. Outstanding invoices from the 2012 relay are estimated at $45,000.
A pair of lawsuits has also been a source of revenue loss for the relay company. Douglass said they will come to hearing Oct. 1.
“Once we do that, we will have a better idea on where we stand,” he said.
Despite the cancellation of the 2013 Hells Canyon Relay, Douglass hopes to be back in 2014. Comments on the Hells Canyon Relay Facebook page indicate some racers will be happy to be back.
“It took the Cascade Lakes Relay three full seasons to really begin to prosper,” Douglass said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we have to do.”
Clarification: This story was adjusted to reflect that the Cascade Lakes Relay was started with the help of Brian Douglass. It has no affiliation with the Hells Canyon Relay.