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Rock 'n' Roll race's numbers fall short in St. Petersburg

Runners wait to begin the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in St. Petersburg the morning of Feb. 12. 
Published Feb. 21, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Organizers of the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon projected that the road race would draw 12,000 to 15,000 runners in its first year when they stood with Mayor Bill Foster at a news conference atop the Pier in May. They said the event could account for 10,000 hotel nights and pump up to $15 million into the local economy.

But those projections turned out to be somewhat of a rock 'n' roll fantasy.

The Feb. 12 race actually had 7,000 finishers, 1,248 of whom came from out of state. Runners, family members and friends were spread out over at least 17 hotels, but three identified by event organizers as the main hotels they worked with booked a little more than 200 race-related rooms. Some hotels were already nearly full with other bookings.

In May, the head of the California company that puts on 27 different Rock 'n' Roll marathons estimated that close to 60 percent of the field would travel from significantly outside St. Petersburg. A Tampa Bay Times analysis of the race finishers found that 30 percent, or 2,088 runners, came from 90 or more miles away.

The city donated $30,000 worth of services. Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater spent $100,000 marketing the event.

"This was an inaugural event that had never existed before,'' said Dan Cruz, spokesman for the race organizer, Competitor Group Inc. "You have to establish a benchmark, a starting point."

But when the city and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater pledged money, the economic impact heralded was for the race's first year. It was not couched as a test run.

"Those were historical projections based on other events that we've organized,'' Cruz said. "Every market is unique. … We can project and estimate as best as we can, but certainly there are those inaugural year variables."

David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, agreed that the half marathon has great potential for heavy economic impact. He declined to say much about the impact of this year's race until a detailed report is received from Competitor Group in about three weeks.

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater boosts tourism with money collected from a hotel tax. It spends $7,500 on the St. Anthony's Triathlon, which draws 4,000 competitors. The city discounts some of its services for that event. Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater donated $10,000 to the Women's Running Magazine Women's Half Marathon, which included 6,000 competitors last year, 1,049 of whom were from out of state. That's just about 200 fewer than the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon's out-of-state runners, though it got $90,000 more from Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

The national and international exposure of the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon is worth the bigger investment, Downing said.

"This brand has tentacles in other markets that other (races) don't offer," he said. The website and marketing for the series lists St. Petersburg among almost 30 high-profile cities known as tourist destinations.

The parent company also has signed on to host a TriRock triathlon in Clearwater on Nov. 11. That fills a void, since the Ironman World Championship left Clearwater for Las Vegas last year, Downing said. Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater is paying $10,000 to support that race.

It has a three-year contract for the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon and has pledged $100,000 for each race in 2013 and 2014.

Overall, participants seemed pleased with the event.

Dawna Stone, who started the Women's Half Marathon three years ago in St. Petersburg, also heard good reviews of the Rock 'n' Roll event. But she doesn't think it makes sense to spend so much tax money on one event when her race has a similar impact.

"I wonder, what if we had that funding? What could we have done?" Stone said. "Instead of giving it all to Rock 'n' Roll based on these numbers, if they're bringing equal economic impact to the city, maybe we could split these dollars."

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort fills about 200 rooms for the Women's Half Marathon and filled about 50 for the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. But that is largely because a hydraulics convention had booked most of the hotel's rooms three years out, said general manager Russ Bond.

"We had a tremendous number of people eating breakfast here after they dropped runners at the race, and we had a lot of runners come in after enjoying our bars in the afternoon,'' Bond said. "It was a good crowd, probably more than other races."

"This was definitely a boost," said April Williams, operations manager for the Courtyard by Marriott at 300 Fourth St. N. She estimated that all but about 15 of the hotel's 128 rooms were booked by folks in town for the race.

Computer assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

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