ST. PETERSBURG — There was a time when city officials had to scheme to persuade organizations to launch a new event along downtown's waterfront streets. But these days, St. Petersburg is the pretty girl at the high school dance. And city officials are suddenly playing hard to get.
At least three athletic groups have approached the city in recent months about hosting the city's first half-marathon. The groups say races could each generate more than $2-million in tourism dollars, introduce athletes nationwide to St. Petersburg and give downtown's coolness quotient a hefty boost.
"It really speaks a lot to where we are as a city that we have this many groups that want to hold an event like this," Mayor Rick Baker said.
But after months of informal discussions and public meetings, city officials have yet to embrace the proposals.
Instead, some race officials complain that Baker's staff has given them the runaround and forced them to compete against one another. The rivalry has sparked bickering and triggered debate across Tampa Bay about whether the area already has too many running events.
"I never thought working with the city would be so hard," said Dawna Stone, president of Women's Running magazine. She wants to organize the area's first all-female half-marathon. "We are exactly the type of business that the city of St. Petersburg should be wholeheartedly supporting."
Stone said city officials told her she could hold her event this November but rescinded the date after they learned Stone had competition. The city says it never promised Stone anything in writing.
The other hopefuls include Iron Girl, the brand behind nationwide women's half-marathon events (and an affiliate of the Ironman brand); and Beach Charities, a St. Pete Beach company that produces local running events, including the St. Pete Beach Classic that took place Saturday.
Iron Girl, the only one not locally based, has demanded exclusive rights to all women's marathon or half-marathon events in exchange for guaranteed television coverage. The others simply want permission to host their events.
Iron Girl declined to comment for this article.
The three groups began submitting their proposals in August. City officials asked organizers to give a 10-minute presentation to a City Council committee in December. But in January, Baker's staff quietly put the half-marathon event out for bid, effectively cutting the City Council out of the decisionmaking process. The council, which favors allowing all three events, was not told about the bid.
"That's news to me, and if that is the case, that's sad," said council member Bill Dudley, who sits on the committee that oversees new events. "I think we were in favor of leaving it open. I think competition is good, and if we can bring three events or if we can bring two events in, it is certainly better than one."
Organizers were given three weeks to draft a formal proposal. Baker's staff will meet in February to review their responses.
The city could host all three races, but it would be stressful, said marketing director Beth Herendeen, who has been overseeing the selection process. St. Petersburg hosts about 2,000 events a year. Organizers are generally asked to cover any related city expenses, but the events still eat up staff time that could be spent on other business.
"We have a finite number of resources," said Herendeen. "These aren't small, one-park events. These are major events with street closures and all of that."
But turning away an event during these gloomy economic times could hurt the city, said council member Wengay Newton.
"Our mission as council people is to try to have all the economic development we can have," he said.
The outcome will boil down to three questions, Baker said. Which event can make the biggest splash? Who can attract the most media exposure? Which event would residents rather attend?
Wendy Johnson, co-founder of Beach Charities, is worried the city will overlook her or could unintentionally set all the races up to fail by scheduling them too closely together. Johnson is the only contender who has organized a race in the Tampa Bay area before.
"These folks have much deeper pocketbooks than we do, but they don't have the expertise in driving athletes," said Johnson. "This is our community. We are the ones that have been putting on events here for years."
Johnson, who wants permission to host a half-marathon for men and women in November, said she is already eyeing other potential host cities.
"It's not like St. Petersburg is the only place in the world to put on an event," she said.
A successful running event can attract participants and onlookers from across the globe. It also can be a headache, with barricaded streets and tons of trash.
The Tampa Bay area already has plenty of races. St. Petersburg alone hosts 26 walking or running events.
A half-marathon could further oversaturate the market because it would require significant commitment from local athletes.
"There is no way there is enough demand for three of these events," said D.T. Minich, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Not true, said Susan Harmeling, executive director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association in Tampa, which has a marathon and half-marathon scheduled for March 1. "I just think we all need to be mindful of each other and play nice," she said.