2017-06-15 / Front Page

The Business of Running Around the Island

By Olga Enger

Although Newport’s best-known seasonal attractions are its musical festivals and high-profile sailing events, a less broadcasted lure brings in tens of thousands of tourists annually, stretching beyond the peak summer season.

Although the economic impact of road races has not been quantified locally, the revenue is unmistakably a significant contributor to the economy, according to participant data. For instance, of the 3,500 runners who participated in the Newport 10-miler held June 4 at Fort Adams State Park, 70 percent traveled from outside Rhode Island for the race.

“We sign people up for a race, they may spend $70 on the fee. Then they need to get a hotel room. Most Newport hotels require a three-night stay,” said Matthew Gray of Gray Matter Marketing, which owns and manages several large races on Aquidneck Island. “Then they have meals and incidentals. These people are spending upwards of $1,000 to come and enjoy the city,” said Gray.

Across the East Coast, 43 percent of road race participants earn $100,000 or more annually, according to a study prepared by Roanoke Valley, Va.

“For our April marathon in Newport, 65 percent of our participants stay in hotels, and they stay for a couple of days,” said Susan Rancourt with Rhode Races and Events. The Newport City Council approved the company’s permit for the 2017 marathon at their June 14 meeting.

Many of the races extend across town lines, attracting visitors beyond Newport.

“Middletown hotels make out like bandits. We have people staying in South County because Newport hotels fill up or are too expensive. So, the impact is really statewide,” said Gray.

Across the country, the road racing industry is a revenue leader in sports. According to Fortune magazine, in 2015, IBISWorld estimated the industry was valued at $1.4 billion, which is nearly the amount of NFL ticket revenue and is $500 million more than the NCAA earned in the same year.

Additionally, the events fill the coffers of charitable organizations. “In total, our races brought in $300,000 last year for local charities,” said Gray.

In addition to the annual Newport race, Gray Matter Marketing also manages Craft Brew Races held in July, and the Amica Newport Marathon and the Ocean Road 10K, both in October. The company manages three races owned by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), including the Citizens Bank Pell Bridge Run in October, the 4 Bridges Ride in September and the newest addition, the Mount Hope Bridge 5K scheduled for August.

Beyond the tax revenues, the organizers write an ample number of checks directly to the municipalities.

“We rent the Town of Middletown’s Sachuest Beach parking lots. We rent the rotunda and parking lots at Easton’s Beach for Columbus Day weekend, which is $15,000 for the city,” said Gray. “Basically, for every event there are a number of stakeholders that we have to have permission from and pay for the use of facilities, staff, permits. We spend a lot of money with the cities and towns on police details, permits and rental fees.”

However, at least one council member claims the influx of dollars may not be worth the aggravation to residents.

“Yes, in some people’s eyes it’s good economic development, but in the eyes of some people that don’t run road races they say, ‘I don’t get it,’” said Councilor Kathryn Leonard, who has voiced concerns about the races for several years.

To lessen the impact to residents, the events should be held early in the morning and not in the peak summer season, she said.

“There are too many events,” said Leonard, referencing last weekend’s busy schedule with the 10-Miler, the Newport Bike’s Elliot Family Bike Ride and the MS Bike ride. “All these things happen at once and it affects our ability to get around town. There are too many vehicles on streets that are too narrow. There needs to be a balance so people who live here and pay taxes can enjoy where they live, too.”

Race organizers say they work closely with the police departments and conduct public outreach to mitigate race-day aggravations for residents. Although races may cause traffic back-ups, organizers do not close down roads.

“The City of Newport does not allow for it. We don’t have permission to shut down the road, unlike a parade,” said Gray. “There are challenges, but pedestrians have as much of a right to the road as cars do.”

“We minimize the impact as much as we can,” said Rancourt, about the April marathon. This year, her company changed the route and the start line to improve traffic flow. “The Newport and Middletown police departments work really great together on the route and details. The police have bent over backwards to help. Kate has her concerns and I respect her opinion. But we have had nothing but positive feedback about our event.”

Despite the upsides, the local road race industry has not been without controversy.

In 2014, Eident Sports Marketing hosted the October marathon, but fell out of favor after officials claimed runners caused damage to the dunes at Easton’s Beach. The following year, Newport City Council granted the permit to Gray Matter Marketing, but Eident continued to market a race on the same day, landing both companies in Superior Court.

“I’m completely done with Newport," said Eident president John Matthews. “It was a minor problem that we remedied by paying a $5,000 fine. And there was question if we even damaged the dunes. It really left a bitter taste in my mouth. I paid the fine, but then Newport took a third of my business away. Given what they did to me and my business, I’m done with Newport. I’m focusing elsewhere.”

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