Raleigh road race directors upset about big running events

City drafting new rules to ensure road races treated equally

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2013 

— For years, the RunRaleigh Half Marathon and 5K race has brought runners to the Cameron Village area on the second Sunday in April – raising more than $30,000 for three local charities.

But race director Paula O’Neal thinks this might be the race’s last year. The event will be bumped from city streets in 2014 by a national for-profit running event, the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series. With other races scheduled for nearly every weekend of the year, O’Neal hasn’t found a suitable weekend for her event.

“I’m at a loss after the 2013 race,” O’Neal told city council members Tuesday. “I don’t want to do to another race what has been done to RunRaleigh.”

Local race organizers are worried that big races coming to Raleigh – Rock ’n’ Roll and the Ironman Triathlon – are getting special treatment that’s denied to homegrown runs. The controversy, coupled with a huge increase in requests for street closures, has prompted the Raleigh City Council to pursue new policies for such events.

Raleigh police have already had 82 applications for road races scheduled this year, nearly double the runs held a few years ago. Most race organizers want the city’s most picturesque route: generally a lap around downtown coupled with a trek out Hillsborough Street. And they want a weekend when other races aren’t competing for runners. But as the number of races grows, neighbors along the most popular routes are getting fed up with roadblocks that can last all morning.

“The issue we’re going to have the hardest time to pin down is the limit on the number of events,” said assistant city manager Dan Howe, who’s overseeing work on the new policy.

The controversy comes as Raleigh prepares for its first races with a national profile, events expected to bring thousands of visitors.

But the prestige comes with a price: Ironman is getting $50,000 to come to Raleigh, and similar terms are being negotiated with Rock ’n’ Roll. Most of that money will come from the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, a division of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city is chipping in $10,000 for Ironman but won’t fund Rock ’n’ Roll, Howe said.

Alliance executive director Scott Dupree estimates each event will generate $2 million to $4 million in visitor spending.

“I believe that these are smart investments that will clearly benefit the region,” Dupree said, pointing out that registration for the June Ironman race sold out its 2,500 slots within weeks. About 1,500 of those are from out of town, he added.

Both Ironman and Rock ’n’ Roll will start and finish around Fayetteville Street’s City Plaza and run “postcard routes” showing off the city’s sights on Sundays. Local races are generally discouraged from using that area on those days because of downtown church services.

‘Equity issue’

The City of Oaks Marathon, which had nearly 4,000 runners last year, generally starts at the N.C. State Belltower and makes a brief jaunt through downtown. It does not receive city funding, although the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance is among its sponsors.

“If somebody else is getting large grants from the city, it becomes an equity issue, and that’s what everybody’s concerned about,” marathon director Ron Wahula said.

Race organizers also took issue with the five-year contract under negotiation with Rock ’n’ Roll. Until now, most race organizers have waited until about a year out to request their next event’s street closings.

“If I was able to secure a five-year contract for my races, I would be able to invest more in my business,” said John Kane, owner of Midtown Race Series. “That to me is incredibly valuable and simplifies things for the city.”

Allowing long-term scheduling is among the changes Raleigh officials are considering. Those reservations would be contingent on race organizers honoring all commitments with the city.

Proposed changes

Among other changes on the table:

A cap on the number of races on popular routes: A series of guidelines would determine which events get priority, including economic impact and the number of participants. “How that cap ought to be organized is a difficult question,” Howe said. “I think this is going to be a little more of an art than a science.”

New locations for shorter races: Parks officials could create certified 5K and other race courses within Raleigh’s larger parks and open spaces, such as Horseshoe Farm Park in Northeast Raleigh. The Dorothea Dix campus is also a possibility for races – even before it’s transformed into a city park.

Clearer standards for notifying neighbors: Some who live near race courses have complained they weren’t notified about street closures. The city could use reverse 911 phone notifications that might be more effective than email alerts.

Fees to offset administrative costs: Howe, the assistant city manager, proposed a “modest” fee structure to cover the city’s costs in setting up race arrangements. He said Raleigh is among few cities that don’t charge race organizers. But Councilman John Odom said he’s not sure about the idea. “I’m very nervous about setting fees because that hurts the local vendor more than the big race people,” he said.

City staff will work with race directors and other stakeholders to craft a draft policy. The city council’s law and public safety committee will discuss the proposal at its Feb. 5 meeting. Until the policy is approved, the police department won’t accept additional applications for race-related street closures.

Campbell: 919-829-4802

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