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Sonoma County hoteliers and other tourism-related businesses, particularly those in Santa Rosa, are gearing up for what has become one of the region's main tourist attractions: The 2012 Amgen Tour of California, a major cycling race that for the first time will begin and end its first of eight stages in the city.

The race is expected to draw thousands of cyclists and cycling enthusiasts to the region over the course of its duration, and it reflects in increased focus on niche tourism, said Brad Calkins, executive director of the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitors Bureau. On the day of the race in Sonoma County, cyclists, team members, Amgen staff and other visitors are expected to have the county's hotels, from Petaluma to Healsdurg, at capacity.

[caption id="attachment_49623" align="alignright" width="432" caption="2012 Amgen Tour of California stage 1 Map"][/caption]

While the economic impact is significant, Mr. Calkins said there is no readily identifiable figure because cycling teams train in Sonoma County throughout the year. Therefore, it's difficult to look solely at the single weekend to gauge its success.

"We've tried to look at it, but Amgen reaches so much more beyond this weekend," Mr. Calkins said, adding the race draws national cycling teams who often train in Santa Rosa for extended periods. "So that's somehow got to be figured in to that. But we feel it year-round with teams training."

Speaking at a Sonoma County Tourism Bureau breakfast recently, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes Santa Rosa, said the Amgen tour could inject as much as $6.6 million into the county. Hosting fees, which cover converting roads to a race course, are about $525,000, and a Santa Rosa organizing committee is in the process of raising that money.

"We often sell Sonoma County in terms of wine and food, but it's often physical tourists," she said, echoing the notion that the region draws increasingly from outdoor enthusiasts.

That's no accident, Mr. Calkins said.

"I think the diverse activity has definitely been more and more on the radar. As we and the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau talked about, it's the niche market -- eco tourism, foodie tourism, the cycling, the outdoors," he said, in addition to the vineyards and wineries.

For the first time, the race will begin in Santa Rosa, and that should also help draw a larger crowd than in the past when Santa Rosa was often just a leg of the eight-part race. "This year being the overall start, it changes a lot," Mr. Calkins said. Santa Rosa became involved with the race in 2006.

The race will begin on May 13 in Santa Rosa. It then heads south and will end its 116-mile course in Los Angeles on May 20. More information can be found at www.AmgenTourofCalifornia.com.***

[caption id="attachment_49625" align="alignleft" width="315" caption="Ike's Place founder Ike Shehadeh"][/caption]

Santa Rosa has been patiently awaiting the arrival of a San Francisco sandwich maker, Ike's Place, for about six months. It will only have to wait another few weeks, as the sandwich maker hopes to be fully operational by mid March, according to Chase Ottney, general manager of the flagship San Francisco location. 

"We had the sign up for long enough, people were starting to wonder, 'Is this going to happen?'" Mr. Ottney said.

Mr. Ottney said Ike's Place, hopefully, could open as soon as March 15, pending final construction and city approvals. The approximately 2,000-square-foot location, at the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Dexter Street, was chosen for its proximity to Santa Rosa Junior College, Mr. Ottney said. It plans to hire 20 people initially.

"We have pulled all of our permits and are reading to go, pending final inspection," he said.

Asked why it would be a good location, Mr. Ottney said, "It seems like Santa Rosa is really booming, and the things that do well here are things that are dynamic, like Russian River Brewery. They have far reach but are still loyal to the local community." 

He also cited celebrity chef and Santa Rosa native Guy Fieri, whose colorful cuisine and personality have proven to be a draw for his restaurants. Santa Rosa was also chosen over other North Bay locales, including Larkspur and Corte Madera in Marin, because of the college, foot traffic, and a growing business climate that Ike's hopes to capture a portion of with a catering arm of the business.

The original San Francisco location, opened about three years ago on 16th Street in The Castro, routinely drew customers from all over the Bay Area, the result of its unique sandwiches. One such sandwich, the "Kryptonite," consists of roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, turkey, bacon, ham, mozzarella sticks, stuff jalapeno poppsers, beer-battered onion rings, avocado, pesto and extra pepper jack. It costs $19.91. Ike's also features a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan-friendly items, such as the "Vegan Reuben," which consists of homemade poppy seed coleslaw, French dressing, soy cheese and vegan turkey. 

Customers often lined up for hours at a time -- the shop would make over 1,000 sandwiches per day -- prompting owner Ike Shehadeh to branch out of the City. The shop had literally outgrown it's location of about 1,000 square feet and was forced into a larger location on the same street, Mr. Ottney said.

Ike's has additional locations at Stanford University, in Oakland and Redwood City, and has plans to open locations in Cupertino and at San Francisco State University. Mr. Shehadeh has plans to grow even further, possibly even Los Angeles. 

"Ike would say, 'Today, Santa Rosa; tomorrow, world domination.' at least domination of the sandwich world," Mr. Ottney said.***

The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau recently kicked of Restaurant Week, running from Feb. 27 through March 4. Participating restaurants will offer three course prix-fixe dinners for $19, $29 or $39, and will feature local ingredients and local wines of their choice to accompany the meals. The emphasis on farm-fresh food and local wineries means dining out during Restaurant Week is not only beneficial to the restaurant industry, but also to local food suppliers, farmers, wineries, and the economic vitality of Sonoma County, the bureau said. 

A list of participating restaurants is available at sonomacountyrestaurantweek.org....Submit items for this column to Staff Writer Dan Verel, dverel@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.