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New owner pledges to overhaul the Salt Lake City Marathon

Published February 26, 2012 12:36 pm

Business • But new owner isn't making any promises about this year's SLC race.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The new owner of the Salt Lake City Marathon says he can't promise the race will be perfect — or even that it will actually take place on April 21.

But he does believe his company can turn it around, after years of unethical management.

"We think we're very good at this," he said.

In a wide-ranging interview, owner Peter Handy of U.S. Road Sports said he gets the sense that the city is leaning toward approving a permit to allow the race to take place as scheduled. The Texas-based company won't know for sure until perhaps early April, but Handy said it will work in the meantime to be ready if the permit comes through.

"We're doing everything that everybody is asking us to do," Handy said. "All the indications that we're getting from the city and the county [are] that we're going to have a race. We're planning on having a race. We're spending money like we're going to have a race. We're talking to everybody we're supposed to talk to, to put the race on. But I can't give anybody assurances that we're going to have a race."

If not, runners should not expect a refund of their registration fee.

For one thing, most races — including the Salt Lake City Marathon — generally do not refund entry fees in any case, and they explain that on the entry forms that runners must sign or submit in order to participate.

On top of that, Handy said that because of a "pre-existing" contract, his company will not receive any of the money from registration fees — between $62 and $98 for the marathon, depending on the date of the entry — until the number of entries exceeds 80 percent of last year's participation.

Registration sits at about 60 percent of the 8,600 participants in the marathon, several shorter races and a bike tour, he said.

"People say to me, 'Should I register and come run?' " Handy said. "And the answer is, I think you should. 'If you guys don't have the race, can I get my money refunded?' I can't, because I don't get your money in the first place. That's the catch-22. The money doesn't come to us."

Handy refused to explain the details of that arrangement, citing the privacy of the "third parties" who entered into it.

It's an issue because of the widespread skepticism surrounding the management of the race, which Handy bought from embattled founder Chris Devine for an undisclosed amount.

Devine has a long history of failing to pay vendors and race winners on time, if at all, though some of the vendors to whom he owed money have been paid since the sale. He and Handy have done business for years.

Many in the running community feared that the sale — just days before a deadline to complete an application for the race permit from the city — was simply a corporate sleight of hand that would somehow enrich both Handy and Devine while continuing to stiff workers and vendors who work on the annual race.

But Handy said that's not the case, and Devine will not get a cut of any race revenue.

"Not at all," he said. "He was the seller, and we were the buyer."

Now, Handy said he intends to invest heavily in the race — upward of $500,000 — even though he knows he will lose a "bucket" of money this year.

"And hopefully in 2013, we're going to make some money," he said. "We're prepared to lose money. When we lose money, none of that is going to be shocking to us, because that's the deal we cut, because we think it's a good race and eventually it's going to be a great race and it's going to be profitable."

Handy spent two days in town earlier this week meeting with city officials and visiting various media outlets and running stores to promote his ownership. He held a question-and-answer session at a Salt Lake Running Company store on Wednesday night, for example, to positive reviews.

"Most people were really happy with what was said and were a lot more confident," said Elizabeth Jenkins, the marketing assistant for Salt Lake Running Company. "They're under a lot of pressure to pull this off, but I think they're going to rise to the challenge. We certainly hope so. … There's no reason why it should be a bad race."

U.S. Road Sports owns a portfolio of popular races around the country, including the Miami Marathon, the Georgia Marathon and a series of well-regarded half-marathons seemingly free of the kind of problems the Salt Lake City Marathon has endured.

It also bought the New Jersey Marathon last year from Devine, and Handy said the company might also buy his Palm Beaches Marathon in Florida, along with several other smaller races.

"He wants to get out of the running business," Handy said. "We'd like to just scoop it all up."

Devine has refused to comment to The Tribune since the sale, apparently unhappy with the newspaper's reporting about his business practices.

Yet even Handy said that Devine's mismanagement is one of the reasons he likes to buy races from him.

"When you buy something from Chris Devine, in all likelihood you're buying something that has negative sentiment," he said. But "we're a bigger and better organization, so I love buying stuff from him. I don't like the baggage that you have to go though. But you get through it, like anything else, and you have an asset that's worth more money than what you bought originally, which is good business practice."

Handy said the race will employ Special Events Management of Chicago as a subcontractor to run the race this year, because it has the personnel "firepower" needed to pull off the race on a tight schedule.

Its CEO is Hank Zemola, who worked last year under similar circumstances as co-race director for Devine's marathon in Florida, where organizers ran out of water for the runners.

Zemola called that "inexcusable," the result of poor planning, and promised it would never happen again.

His company handles dozens of other events a year, including the massive Taste of Chicago food expo, though Handy said he doesn't expect to need to hire it again next year, when U.S. Road Sports will have a whole year to plan for the race.

For now, Handy vows that he will pay all of his workers and vendors promptly — though not for Devine's past debts — provide better race T-shirts and finisher medals, and work to build the race into a source of pride for the community.

He said he probably will have to move the finish line from the middle of the Gateway shopping complex because of construction in the area, but he doesn't want to move the race to May because of the increased possibility of warm weather — anathema to marathon runners.

What he also wants, above all else, is for runners to give him a chance.

"We can't ask them to assume the best," he acknowledged. "We just don't want them to assume the worst."