2015-03-19 / Front Page

Marathon Crosses Finish Line

By Barry Bridges

Seven months before the 2015 Newport Marathon is scheduled to host thousands of athletes on Columbus Day weekend, there has already been a spirited contest between the two event management companies that vied to produce the annual run.

A deadlocked City Council initially denied two competing license applications for the marathon at its regular meeting on March 11, at the time effectively killing this year’s event. But Newport’s Gray Matter Marketing emerged victorious when councilors reconsidered their stance at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 18.

Eident Sports Marketing and Gray Matter applied for a license to conduct the marathon on Oct. 11. Eident put on the run for the past six years, but hit a bump in the road in 2014 when crowds damaged the dunes at Easton’s Beach. The city fined Eident almost $5,000 for the infraction, and Gray Matter saw an opportunity to pursue the license for the 2015 race.

Both sides argued their case before councilors on March 11. Eident President John Mathews took the podium and focused on his group’s experience and the economic impact of the marathon, while Gray Matter President Matthew Gray likewise pointed to his background with local races while describing a profit-sharing model with charities that he felt would be in the best interest of the city.

Mathews said that Eident has put on over 100 races, with the Newport Marathon being the “culminating event in the Rhode Island Triple Crown of Racing.” He emphasized the economic impact to the city. “Over six years, we’ve added between $12 and 16 million to the economy of Newport,” he calculated.

“Only 20 percent of our runners are from Rhode Island,” he continued. “Eighty percent of our roughly 5,000 participants are staying in hotels or dining in restaurants.”

Mathews said that he was unaware of the dune damage on last fall’s marathon day, as he was busy orchestrating the many details of the race. But he explained that he made the city whole as soon as he knew of the problem and was thereafter advised that the matter was settled. “We paid the bill without any questions.”

“The race is 26 miles and the piece that is Easton’s Beach is a few hundred yards,” he continued, describing a future strategy for additional fencing.

When Gray addressed the council that evening, he reviewed his local involvement and races that he already manages. “We are highly capable of producing a successful high-impact event in Newport,” he said.

Gray described how his company submitted a marathon package for the same dates and a similar route when it appeared that Eident would no longer be a candidate to operate the run. He was referencing a November memo to the council from Director of Public Services William Riccio, who thought that the city shouldn’t do further business with Eident in light of the dune damage. “A permit is a privilege, not a right,” said Gray.

He was surprised by Mathews’ blindness to the beach damage, saying that “you should have all knowledge of the event at all times.”

Gray also reviewed his company’s plans to make five $10,000 donations to local charities from marathon proceeds.

That promise rubbed Eident the wrong way.

“He can’t buy the permit,” said Mathews. “It would put us on an ethical slippery slope. We give money to charity and we will continue to do that in the future. I don’t like being characterized as against charity – that’s not true. But charitable donations should not be viewed as an advantage in getting the permit.”

The donation proposal proved to be a critical factor in the balance of the council. Justin McLaughlin recused himself from the original vote, presumably because his son is co-founder and executive director of Clean Ocean Access, one of Gray Matter’s charitable partners.

As the verdict neared on March 11, Councilor Naomi Neville said, “I will base my decision mainly on what I’ve heard from staff and the history of the last event. The staff has recommended Gray Matter Marketing and that is who I will be voting for tonight.” She was joined by Councilors Lynn Ceglie and John Florez.

But Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Councilors Marco Camacho and Kathryn Leonard demurred. “I’m inclined to vote no for both. There needs to be a new route outside the beach,” said Napolitano. Leonard didn’t want to become involved in what she viewed as a civil dispute between the applicants.

Neville’s motion to grant the license to Gray Matter failed on a 3-3 tie, while a motion by Napolitano to grant the license to Eident was not seconded.

Ceglie, Florez, and Neville expressed their frustration with the March 11 outcome, issuing a joint statement reading in part: "By choosing not to grant a license to either potential vendor, [certain council members] essentially killed the Newport marathon. In the end, tonight’s biggest loser was the City of Newport and the multiple charities that will also be impacted by this decision or lack thereof.”

By the next day, the situation began to change. Clean Ocean Access distanced itself from a charitable relationship with Gray Matter, freeing McLaughlin to cast a vote on the matter without a conflict of interest.

At the ensuing meeting on March 18 to reconsider the license, McLaughlin's presence tilted the balance in favor of Gray Matter. Camacho articulated reasons for sticking with Eident and admonished Gray for making "one hell of a mess" and risking collateral damage to the city by submitting a divisive competing application, but this was not enough to turn the tide. The vote in favor of Gray Matter was 5-2, with Napolitano joining the yes column so that the marathon can continue. Camacho and Leonard dissented.

Eident promised to continue with its Columbus Day marathon plans at another location.

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