KOLD INVESTIGATES: Meet the businesswoman who came out of retirement to save El Tour de Tucson

“It’s a heritage, it’s a legacy, it’s our culture. We’re not going to lose this.”

New CEO of El Tour saves Tucson's famous race

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - El Tour de Tucson almost didn’t happen this year.

Major money issues plagued the ride, but a new CEO is trying to get the finances back in the black.

For many cyclists like Penny Tietjen, they may not have even known there were money problems. For her, bicycling is an escape.

"I can get on my bike and almost, almost forget that I have some things that I have to maintain," she said.

Tietjen is diabetic.

She also has been riding in El Tour de Tucson for more than a decade. Combining the two, she rides to benefit the charity: Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“For me personally as a type one diabetic who rides for a charity event, it provides a way for me to maintain my heath,” she said.

When she learned the ride she loves almost didn’t happen this year, she was shocked. She says she can’t imagine Tucson without El Tour.

“Definitely an identity for us,” she said.

For many cyclists like Penny Tietjen, they may not have even known there were money problems. For her, bicycling is an escape.
For many cyclists like Penny Tietjen, they may not have even known there were money problems. For her, bicycling is an escape. (Source: KOLD News 13)

Financial Issues For Perimeter, Tour

KOLD News 13 obtained the 990s for the Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, Inc., the nonprofit that oversees El Tour.

We found a lot of financial issues.

The tax forms for 2013 and 2014 show what seems to be a healthy organization. It was profitable by more than $200,000.

However, things took a turn.

Jump ahead to 2016, the company is in the red overall by more than $170,000.

By 2017, it was down more than $90,000.

Pressure was mounting on the old CEO for the organization to pay money owed to Pima County for barricades. Several months ago, Richard DeBernardis decided to step down.

Charlene Grabowski stepped in and helped save El Tour de Tucson.
Charlene Grabowski stepped in and helped save El Tour de Tucson. (Source: KOLD News 13)

Quick Turnaround

“I’m a business person and I do turnarounds,” she said.

In fact, Grabowski said she came out of retirement to fix the ride. When she saw these bad tax forms, she knew immediately what to do.

“No money, no mission,” she said. “First thing that you do is you take a look at the people and make sure you have the right resources available, you look at the processes that are in place, and there wasn’t a lot of documentation.”

Because of a lack of documentation, she said the tax forms don’t tell the whole story. Now, she’s steering the insolvent company back on course and said she’s in line to pay back the county quickly.

"Mr. Huckleberry and the county have loaned us $280,000 for our barricades," she said. "If I do things as I think I will, I'll turn that around within the first half of next year and try to pay back."

She also renegotiated contracts with other partnering companies so it’s a win-win and is investing in new technology. All of this means riders won’t pay more this year.

“From a website to a registration process to a timing process, I’ve actually decreased the cost of that infrastructure by 50 percent,” Grabowski said.

El Tour de Tucson is one of the largest road cycling events in the United States.
El Tour de Tucson is one of the largest road cycling events in the United States.

New This Year

Also new for 2019 is Race Joy.

It’s an app that lets users track a rider from anywhere.

Grabowski said these changes don’t just impact the rider’s experience but also the company’s bottom line.

"The real goal is make this a net neutral ride this year,” she said. “If I make a dollar over, happy."

Grabowski saved El Tour de Tucson this year. But, can she keep it alive for years to come?

“You know, it’s a heritage, it’s a legacy, it’s our culture,” she said. “We’re not going to lose this.”

That determination is something riders like Penny Tietgen are thankful for.

“I think Charlene has got what it’s going to take to bring this thing together and give it longevity and keep it on the map as a destination ride and a bucket list ride,” Tietgen said.

Grabowski is also making plans for the future.

She’s looking to expand the ride.

That may include more days of riding, mountain biking or biking up Mount Lemmon. She said she’s just looking for a visionary to help her decide what to do next.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.