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Consider the $500-a-night hotel room.
 In Duluth

By Paul Levy, Star Tribune, MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 20, 2008 --DULUTH -- Think $4 for a gallon of gas is expensive?

Consider the $500-a-night hotel room.

In Duluth.

It's the biggest commercial weekend of the summer in Duluth, which is expecting 18,000 runners entered in Grandma's Marathon and two other races. And the city's hotel prices have never reflected that more, even in a depressed economy.

With rates reaching $500, and minimum two-night stays required all over town, it may cost more to stay in Canal Park this weekend than it does along New York's Central Park.

The recently remodeled Canal Park Lodge is charging guests a prepaid $469.95 plus the 13 percent hotel tax per night -- or more than $1,000 total for Friday and Saturday, the day of the 26.2-mile race from Two Harbors to Duluth -- to stay in a two-room suite, hotel manager Jim Paquette said Wednesday.

A room at The Inn -- The Inn on Lake Superior, at the race's finish line at Canal Park -- costs guests as much as $449 plus tax per night, again prepaid and with a two-night minimum. Even the University of Minnesota Duluth has raised its summer guest-room rates: A dorm suite costs a total of $340 for the two nights and a dorm room is priced this weekend at $156, a $29 increase over most summer weekends, said Denise Cater, UMD's residence area director.

Set along Lake Superior's scenic North Shore and traditionally ranked among the nation's best-run marathons, the 32nd annual Grandma's bills itself as a world-class event with small-town charm.

But those are big-city prices.

Tourist season

Two-time Grandma's champion and all-time record holder Dick Beardsley said Thursday of the high hotel prices, "As I go around the country to speak, that's the only thing I hear negative about Grandma's. The hotels are taking too much out of every runner's pocket. I can understand the hotels bumping up prices a little, but at some point you have to reach a ceiling."

But "the hotels are still sold out so I guess nobody's complaining too much," said Beardsley, who is arguably the most celebrated marathon runner ever to come out of Minnesota.

Scott Keenan, Grandma's Marathon's executive director, said organizers have "been hearing about the rates for years." People find alternative lodging, too, such as staying with friends and family, he noted.

"As for some of the hotels on Canal Park, summer is tourist season. If you owned a fantastic product, and knew people desired to stay there, your price likely would be higher."

Earlier this week, guests could stay at selected rooms at The Inn for as little as $99 per night, according to the hotel's website. But runners and their families lined up the morning after last year's Grandma's Marathon for the chance to make a $250 deposit for a room a year later. Those rooms had to be paid in full by May 1. Even with this year's dreary economy, there were only three more cancellations at the 175-room Inn than there were this time a year ago, The Inn owner John Goldfine said.

Pat Joyce, 52, a claims adjuster from Blaine, has run every Grandma's with one exception since 1986. He said years ago he "lost" his room at the Radisson. Now he's grateful to have a room at the Holiday Inn. "I'm just in it for the T-shirt," said Joyce, who doesn't expect to break 4 hours in the race.

It's an expensive T-shirt. He said he's paying $689 for two nights at the Holiday Inn. But he's not complaining.

"The runners know in advance what the prices are," Joyce said. "We're here."

Hotel cancellations and possible race no-shows might have more to do with floods in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, Keenan said. Marathon runners can overcome many obstacles to go long distances, but not life-altering natural disasters.

A few bargains

Those cancellations have spurred some unusual bargains for runners and race watchers hoping to track down a place to stay. The Inn has a handful of rooms with rates reduced to as low as $279 per night, without the two-night minimum -- for Friday night only. The Canal Park Lodge, which had a cancellation deadline of May 15, has reduced two-room suites from $469.95 to $399.95 plus tax, but is not waiving the two-night minimum stay. Other available rooms at the Lodge can be had for as little as $209.95 plus tax a night -- but for two nights, Paquette said.

The addition of the new 147-room Sheraton in downtown Duluth may also be reason there are a few dozen hotel rooms available just days before the marathon. The Sheraton, as of Thursday afternoon, had nine rooms available, with prices ranging from $209 to $269 plus tax per night. Another new hotel is at the Black Bear Casino, 18 miles south of Duluth.

Goldfine thinks the demand for rooms near the race's finish will continue to increase in coming years. The race just keeps getting bigger, he noted.

"You pay for special events," he said. "Duluth has 80,000 people, and we're adding 17,000 runners. Many of them are from out of town, and they bring family and friends.

"For them, for Duluth, this is a very special event."

Paul Levy --612-673-4419

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Copyright (c) 2008, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

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