Opinion: When a High-Profile Charity Event Turns for Profit - Southern Maryland Headline News

Opinion: When a High-Profile Charity Event Turns for Profit

Commentary by Karen Hosler

It’s an advertiser’s dream: four-plus miles of “signage opportunity” almost 200 feet in the air on the guardrails and expansion joint pads of a span that soars over North America’s largest estuary.

This rare opportunity, open to businesses willing to help pay for the latest incarnation of pedestrian travel over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, signals that the once-cherished Bay Bridge Walk and Governor’s Bay Bridge Run have gone commercial. Instead of taking in the glorious vista—and perhaps forming a bond with the deeply troubled waterway—a truly focused runner/walker could avoid looking at the bay altogether.

Time was, those two events—the walk launched by Gov. Marvin Mandel in 1975 and enhanced by Gov. Harry Hughes 10 years later with the addition of a 10 kilometer foot race—were celebrated as opportunities for families from all over the watershed to amble along with strollers and snacks and rejoice in the beauty of the bay from a perspective otherwise unavailable on foot. As many as 70,000 people took part each year.

Even with lots of volunteer help, though, security, cleanup and transportation costs of those events ultimately became too expensive. Year after year since 2006, they were cancelled for one reason or another. But the main problem was a half-million dollar bite out of a recession-wracked state budget.

Then last year the state agreed to the restoration of bridge festivities overseen by a private company willing to absorb all of the costs in return for a potential profit. The inaugural event is scheduled for Nov. 9. There’s no walk, but a 10K foot race that welcomes up to 20,000 people who move as slow as 19 minutes per mile.

I’ve paid my $60 and I’m signed up. I ran most of the bridge races since 1985 and was sorry to see the tradition abandoned. It’s a real shame, though, that the bay will no longer be the primary focus of the festivities. Instead, it will share the spotlight with unrelated charities. Seems like, if there is profit to be made off this majestic state facility it ought to be spent on cleaning up the bay.

This transformation reflects a national trend in running events. Charitable and government sponsors are increasingly calling upon professional race managers, rather than volunteers, like the Annapolis Striders running club that formerly organized the race.

For example, the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina, started by a non-profit group in 1978, now has a paid race director and a staff of five that accommodates 40,000 runners. But the race remains a non-profit enterprise that celebrates the city, and the only signs allowed on the bridge are mile-markers.

Similarly, the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, held in Washington, D.C., since 1973, relied entirely on volunteers until the early 1990s, but now has a paid director and deputy director. It, too, remains a non-profit event financed by entry fees and private sponsors.

Whether Across the Bay 10K organizers Sparrow Rogers and Peter Paris will reap financial success is unclear. They too, have hired a professional race director. And huge logistical problems are yet to be resolved. Rogers said she is hoping just to break even this first year. She and Paris are personally liable for any debts. “My husband thought I was nuts. He said he’d never seen anyone work so hard to potentially not owe money. ”

But over the next few years, the payoff could be plenty.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been allowed to join the list of favored charities—and supply 300 volunteers—after an initial snub that spoke volumes about how the focus of the event has shifted.

The best news is that some donations spurred by the race will be targeted to help Queen Anne’s County, a race partner, combat stormwater pollution. (None of the entry fees go to charity).

The benefits to the foundation and the county represent a small step for the bay, but the race itself takes a giant leap into commercialism.

Karen Hosler is a reporter and commentator for WYPR. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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