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CITY TALK: Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon weekend features winners, losers

Savannah has now hosted eight versions of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

The event started in 2010 when the nation and the city were still struggling to escape the effects of the deep 2007-2009 recession. At the time, the first weekend in November was really quiet aside from the activity generated by the Savannah Film Festival.

The cultural and tourism landscape has changed over the years, so this might be a good time for a broader discussion about the marathon’s future beyond the race already scheduled for 2018.

First, the good news – or at least some of it. The marathon packs the hotels, brings considerable business to some restaurants and benefits a variety of other businesses.

Many of the visiting runners are making their first trips to Savannah and fit the profile of tourists who would be likely to return. Some who enjoy our hospitality during the marathon will eventually move to Savannah or start businesses here.

The marathon’s focus on fitness is inspirational to many, and I love seeing so many friends’ social media posts about their successes at the race. (I’m usually still in bed when I read these posts, but, you know, different strokes.)

But, after the eighth iteration of the race, we know that there are some clear downsides, and the negative qualities seem more pronounced as it becomes more obvious that marathon preparations squeeze out other potential business activity and events.

Before I mention a few of the obvious issues, let me address a comment that some readers of this column will make: “The next thing you know, those whiners will want to get rid of St. Patrick’s Day.” That’s a bad analogy.

Sure, there are always discussions about ways of altering St. Patrick’s Day to limit disruptions, but St. Paddy’s is part of Savannah’s history, culture and identity. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon is not. The for-profit event is run by the Competitor Group, which was acquired earlier this year by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda.

It became obvious back in 2010 that some downtown businesses would not see any economic benefits from the marathon, and by now it’s clear that some would have higher sales for the weekend if the marathon didn’t happen.

Among the losers are some locally owned restaurants and shops, especially those with large local clienteles, and even some professionals who work in tourism-related fields like tours and wedding planning, which is an especially lucrative segment of the market.

If we look at the annual marathon on a macro level, the event is almost certainly a net win for the local economy, but there are clear losers. And that math doesn’t take into account other quality-of-life issues that offset some of the event’s many upsides.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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