Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon on Palm Sunday strikes a sour note for downtown Raleigh churches

ccampbell@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2013 

— Nearly 500 Palm Sunday worshippers headed to downtown’s Church of the Good Shepherd next April could find it difficult to get there: All four streets surrounding the sanctuary will likely be blocked.

April 13 brings the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon to Raleigh, and the route through downtown that morning will prompt some of the most extensive street closures in the city’s history.

City leaders say they approved the route because the nationally recognized event will bring an estimated 7,500 to 12,000 runners from across the nation and more than $2 million in visitor spending. But downtown’s historic churches are none too pleased that the date is Palm Sunday, the start of Christian Holy Week and one of the most popular services of the year.

“We are upset at the fact that it does shut down our ability to have people get in to worship,” said the Rev. Robert Sawyer, rector at Church of the Good Shepherd. “We would hope they would reconsider the route, if not the day of the race.”

To get to Sawyer’s church during the race, worshippers will likely need to park in a deck on McDowell Street, walk several blocks and enter through the rear of the building.

Scott Dupree is director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau division that’s working with the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. He said race organizers will partner with churches to ensure no one’s blocked from attending services.

“Rock ’n’ Roll will do a superb job of working with each church that’s impacted by the route on an individual basis,” Dupree said. “Rock ’n’ Roll’s track record in the area of communication and community relations is unsurpassed in this industry.”

Where will the bands be?

Dupree said the company hasn’t yet picked stage locations for the 40 rock bands along the route – the race’s main selling point. But he said organizers will likely avoid disruptive sites near the churches.

The marathon’s prime route and downtown finish line have been denied to other road races in the past. When the City of Oaks Marathon holds its next event on Nov. 3, runners will make their way down Fayetteville Street and circle the state government complex. But by the seventh mile – about an hour or so after the 7 a.m. start – they’ll leave downtown, and the roads there will reopen.

The rest of the City of Oaks course runs along Hillsborough Street and down greenways. That’s because city leaders don’t want the marathon to affect the half-dozen churches surrounding the Capitol, said Jim Micheels, City of Oaks founder.

Micheels said the city has rejected a downtown finish for his race.

“The point of the City of Oaks Marathon was to showcase Raleigh from the downtown Capitol to the trails in Umstead State Park,” he said in an email to the City Council. “Unfortunately, this goal has been forcibly altered by the city.”

Micheels also has criticized the Convention and Visitors Bureau for giving the for-profit Rock ’n’ Roll race $125,000 in incentives. City of Oaks, by contrast, will receive $1,500 this year.

The Rev. Chris Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church on Salisbury Street, said his congregation already had problems when the Ironman Triathlon came through downtown in June. Like the Rock ’n’ Roll race, the Ironman closed Hillsborough Street, blocking access to one of the church’s main parking lots.

“That does put a burden on us on a high attendance Sunday,” Chapman said, adding that elderly and disabled members might not be able to walk from far-flung parking.

Chapman said his church wasn’t consulted about the Rock ’n’ Roll route, and he wasn’t aware of the planned closures until contacted by The News & Observer.

“I think all the downtown churches have expressed an interest in being in conversation with the City Council about when events happen,” he said. “We want to be a reasonable part of the downtown family … but we don’t want to have our core activities overlooked.”

Race approvals may change

The Raleigh City Council is considering tweaks to its race approval process. The change would put the city’s events task force within City Hall – it’s currently overseen by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance – in an effort to improve communication and logistics. A full-time events manager could be hired to oversee races and other street closures.

The goal is to avoid situations like the recent Color Run through the Oakwood neighborhood, where residents weren’t informed and cars were towed from outside homes.

“We’ll be taking a whole big picture but also getting down into the nitty-gritty,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who chairs the committee that will take up the issue.

But Baldwin said she supports the decision to give Rock ’n’ Roll a prime route through downtown, given the economic impact of hosting the event. “When they come into a community, they always want what’s called the postcard route,” she said. “This is something that puts us on a national scale, and that’s attractive.”

Baldwin said that setting the route six months in advance allows plenty of time to work out logistical conflicts.

But Church of the Good Shepherd’s Sawyer is skeptical the event will run smoothly for hundreds of congregation members. He suspects some will just stay home.

“None of us here are against the marathon, but we would hope that somebody would look on a calendar and see what the date is,” he said. “The Holy Week is the most important week of the year.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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