Emails reveal details on fate of Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Savannah

Published: May. 4, 2022 at 7:05 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The City of Savannah’s made a decision to not renew this year’s contract with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and the race organizer’s choosing not to come back in 2023.

The announcements came the same week last month shocking many in the community.

So WTOC requested emails that were sent between city staff, Rock ‘n’ Roll organizers, and tourism leaders to find out what really happened.

On April 19th, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson officially announced the City would not be renewing a contract with the Rock ‘n’ Roll running series or host any marathon event in 2022.

Mayor Johnson said a number of variables needed to be reconsidered, like the impact on residents and businesses along the race route, and cost of city services and the contract with race organizers, $25,000 annually.

Under that contract, the City was responsible for the cost of race day police services up to $25,000.

Our records request revealed last year, SPD’s overtime, food expenses and cost for outside agency help totaled nearly $45,000. But again, the City was on the hook for only $25,000 of that.

Also, up until now, the only feedback we’ve heard from Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon organizers was a Facebook post that didn’t shed much light on the interaction between the organization and city staff.

On April 19th, just hours after the Mayor’s news conference and race contract announcement, Drew Wolff, Regional Director for The Ironman Group, sent this email to Savannah City Manager Jay Melder and Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli.

Wolff says in part, “I have shared with you our willingness to update the contract including financial terms, and address course changes we have done every year.” Wolff says he believed his company had already satisfied those goals for the 2022 race. He then referenced one of the points Mayor Johnson made, saying “...the Mayor misunderstands or mischaracterized our relationship regarding police costs today in his press conference, we have paid year over year for police services in excess of the $25k value-in-kind, this incorrect information hurts all of our abilities to create a strong and lasting partnership.”

Several hours later the conversation turns to the possibility of bringing the racing series back to Savannah in 2023.

City Manager Jay Melder wrote “I can say to you that the City of Savannah is serious and earnest in our commitment to working with Rock ‘n’ Roll on a 2023 event, and potentially entering into another multi-year contract for future years, provided we come to agreeable terms.”

Melder put those terms in bullet points, which included financial contributions, city service requirements, race route and staging and community engagement and participation.

Melder added, “I cannot today commit to a timeline to finalizing an agreement...” saying that depended on stakeholder engagement.

But the next day, this message was sent to city staff and Visit Savannah.

Addressing the City Manager, Wolff says, “Jay, having been involved with every aspect of this event since 2018 we have never said NO to a single request from the city.” Wolff later says “Our event requires a permit through your offices and that alone would provide the city a check and balance every year to all the items you listed below, which in our previous discussions I have expressed without exception a willingness to meet. Of course, you know this as the mayor was comfortable publicly using this tool a few weeks in advance of our 2021 event to require our participants provide proof of vaccination or a negative covid-19 test. Our willingness and ability to marshal the resources and support to meet that requirement is further proof of our commitment to the city and the community.”

Near the end of the email Wolff says “Although I would like to believe you when you say the City of Savannah is serious and earnest in its commitment to working with us, unfortunately, we do not foresee the ability to return to Savannah in 2023.”

The City Manager’s reply about 15 minutes later, “We wish you and Rock ‘n’ Roll the best, as well, Drew. Thank you.”

One backup possibility to the Rock ‘n’ Roll racing series came to light in the records request.

The Executive Director of the Savannah Sports Council reached out to City staff saying they’d be interested in partnering with the City to host a “Savannah Marathon” event.

We’ll keep you updated on any developments.

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