The effort to win approval for a new, “big city” marathon in Milwaukee has turned into a sprint for Chris Ponteri, the race organizer squeezed by opposition and pressed for time.
After stumbling in his first bid for city approval last month, Ponteri still needs to firm up a date and a route to ameliorate opposition from disparate groups.
And in a recent interview, the founder of Longrun Athletics projected he would need to gain a special events permit in September to provide enough time to promote and organize a race he initially proposed for April 26, 2015. The council is in recess through August and Ponteri’s next opportunity for a hearing before the Public Works Committee is September 10.
“That might be the latest we can get things going,” said Ponteri, whose company puts on seven races a year, including the IceBreaker Indoor Marathon.
Finding a date that reduces conflicts with other events is likely the biggest hill to climb.
Representatives from Milwaukee World Festival Inc. complained in June that the April 26 date was too close – seven weeks – to the popular Summerfest Rock ‘n’ Sole runs, particularly because Ponteri plans to include a half marathon in his event.
The logical move would be to find a date in fall, but the Badgerland Striders Running Club doesn’t want competition for its Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, traditionally the first Sunday in October.
“We really risk having two small marathons, neither of which will thrive,” said Pete Abraham, president of the Striders.
Ponteri said he is receptive to the idea of shifting the Milwaukee Marathon date to the fall, and that the event he envisions would be a complement to the Lakefront Marathon, which fills to its capacity of 3,100 registrants each year.
He wants to create a larger marathon that attracts upwards of 20,000 runners, and matches the big-time races in other cities, like Minneapolis, St. Louis and Cincinnati, if not Chicago and New York. He also wants to loop the course through the heart of the city, and its neighborhoods, in contrast to the Lakefront Marathon which hugs Lake Michigan shoreline from Grafton to Veteran’s Park.
“There’s a need for an event like this in Milwaukee,” Ponteri said. “I’d like to fill that. There’s no event in Milwaukee that is a tourist destination for runners.
“The Lakefront is a great race,” he said. “It’s my favorite marathon, but with their capacity and the fact they don’t have a half marathon attached to it, it’s not going to be that major event. It’s not even an urban course. It’s a very well-run, mid-sized race.”
He pointed to an economic impact study that showed the Lakefront generated $3.2 million in the local economy, in 2008. “That’s not a small impact that we have,” Abraham said.
In addition, the Lakefront does center its activity in the city, with the expo at the Italian Community Center and the finish line in the shadow of the downtown skyline.
The competition from Ponteri and his proposal, although still uncertain, has added more urgency to the Strider’s plans for expanding the Lakefront Marathon. Abraham said the organizers are committed to adding a half marathon and working with the suburban leaders north of Milwaukee to accommodate more runners on the course.
Ponteri has one other obstacle to overcome, the skepticism of Ald. Robert Bauman, the chairman of the Public Works Committee reviewing his special event permit application. The alderman representing downtown Milwaukee questioned Ponteri’s experience and ability to manage an event on the scale he proposed.
“Who are these guys?” Bauman asked. “They’re a handful of people, basically, who say let’s organize a marathon, which is a big deal with huge logistics and police costs, a potential nightmarish level of security and cost.”
In response, Ponteri cited 15 years’ experience as a race director, the growth of Longrun Athletics and the team he has assembled. Elite runner Matt Thull, Running in the USA owner Mary Flaws, the owners of Performance Running Outfitters and one of the city’s top marketing agencies are on board, along with other veteran race directors, he said.
“I always tell people I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I know how to find experts to join the team,” Ponteri said. “I’m confident we can build an event as good as any major event in the country.”
Ponteri also said he has contacted Milwaukee Ald. Willie Wade to address his complaints that the Milwaukee Marathon bypassed minority neighborhoods and didn’t include input from black leaders in its planning. (I attempted to reach Wade to discuss this point but we did not connect).
Tom Held writes The Active Pursuit blog for Silent Sports.