City council puts an end to the Big Cottonwood MarathonJun 30, 2022 08:41PM ● By Cassie Goff
By Cassie Goff | [email protected]
“Do we want to keep doing this marathon?”
The question hung in the air during the Cottonwood Heights City Council meeting June 7.
Runners have been participating in the Big Cottonwood Marathon for the past decade. The horn is blown toward the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon early in the morning. Runners then follow the curves of the canyon down to Wasatch Boulevard arriving on Fort Union Boulevard. Continuing west, runners race along Fort Union Boulevard, downhill toward the finish line staged in the Union Park Center (between 1300 East and Union Park Avenue).
The marathon is routinely scheduled all morning and into the early afternoon. Each year, Fort Union Boulevard is closed to commuter traffic from Wasatch Boulevard to Union Park Avenue (roughly 3.65 miles). Drivers wishing to cross Fort Union Boulevard are required to travel west past 1300 East, cross, then head back up toward their destination.
The Cottonwood Heights Police Department makes sure to open the roads as early as possible, but it’s generally not safe to open the intersection of Wasatch Boulevard until 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. After Wasatch Boulevard is opened, the CHPD officers follow the marathon route down Fort Union Boulevard, unblocking roads when appropriate.
“It’s been 10 years, and we are still receiving complaints,” said Cottonwood Heights Culture Manager Ann Eatchel.
Closing one of the major roads within the city for hours on a Saturday morning results in city staff members fielding complaints for days. City residents are inconvenienced as they try to travel to or from their home, especially if they’re headed toward Salt Lake in the morning. Sandy residents who rely on Wasatch Boulevard to commute north are blocked from their habitual commute. Drivers from other cities and non-Utah residents stumble upon roadblocks they were not anticipating. Businesses along Fort Union Boulevard lose the majority of proceeds for that weekend day.
The council decided it was time to open a conversation analyzing the costs and benefits of the marathon.
“In 2012, it was presented to the council as a great opportunity for Cottonwood Heights,” Eatchel recalled. “It would put the city on the map.”
As the Big Cottonwood Marathon is a Boston Qualifier, it seemed like it would provide publicity for the relatively young city. Runners who would have never heard of Cottonwood Heights suddenly knew about, and wanted to visit, the area. Eatchel recalled the excitement at the time but noted that it did not draw as many visitors as they had initially hoped.
“There are 15 Boston Qualifiers in the State of Utah. It’s not a major thing now,” Eatchel said.
The Big Cottonwood Marathon has the potential to stimulate the city’s economy. Runners from outside of the area can stay in local hotels and visit the shopping centers and restaurants. After the race, runners, their supporters, and spectators can grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants surrounding the finish line and visit local businesses.
Unfortunately, that has not been the reality. “We watch (participants) go to their cars and drive home. Economically, it doesn’t benefit our city…the Maverick benefits,” shrugged Police Chief Robby Russo.
Instead of helping economic growth within the city, Eatchel sees the marathon hurting many of the city-owned businesses. Almost all businesses located along the stretch of Fort Union Boulevard that gets shut down for the marathon close for the day. Customers cannot access the buildings and employees cannot get to work through a blocked road.
Recognizing the impact of the road closure for the marathon on local businesses, Revel, the company that sponsors the marathon, does offer free advertising. They initiate conversations with all the business owners to notify and discuss the event in advance.
Revel also works with the CHPD to create, maintain, and implement an enforcement and safety plan for the event. CHPD officers, along with additional officers from Sandy’s and Murray’s police departments, maintain a safe environment for participants and enforce the road closures at the intersections along Fort Union Boulevard the day of the marathon.
“We don’t have enough officers to handle it,” Russo said. “It also impacts UFA. They can’t get to their medical and fire calls as quickly.”
To host the Big Cottonwood Marathon, Revel submits a special event permit application to the city. Eatchel noted language within the permit requires an evaluation of the impact of the event to traffic, security, public access and safety.
“We charge a $200 fee. That’s it for the application,” Eatchel said, almost flooring Councilmember Shawn Newell. “They do have to cover costs. The police charge for their officers’ time, but I can guarantee that the officers put in more hours than what is charged.”
Another cost Revel is required to cover is canyon transportation. No one is allowed on Big Cottonwood Canyon Road in the morning before or during the event. Runners line up at the bottom of the canyon so busses can transport them to the starting line incrementally. Those busses are usually borrowed from the local school districts.
“The schools won’t take the liability. It’s liability to the city to drive the busses up the canyon,” reported City Attorney Shane Topham.
About a few weeks after the marathon every year, Revel donates their remaining proceeds to the Cottonwood Heights Parks & Recreation Foundation. Total amounts vary year to year, but on average the donation is between $4,000 and $5,000.
City Manager Tim Tingey asked (Service Area) Executive Direction Ben Hill if he thought the pros of the marathon outweighed the cons. He was torn. While it is nice to receive those donations, the marathon causes issues for their patrons the day of. The Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center hosts a variety of different tournaments and games for sporting leagues on Saturday mornings. Many youth and adult athletes miss their events because they can’t cross Fort Union Boulevard (approximately 7000 South) to get the rec center, located at 7500 South and 2700 East.
After analyzing the costs and benefits of the marathon, such as economic and environmental impacts, police and city staff’s time and labor, communication and partnerships, public access, traffic, conflict, liability, security and safety, it was time for the city council to answer the initial question.
“There are a lot of burdens the city has to carry, and that’s concerning,” Newell said.
“I understand the community engagement aspect,” said Mayor Mike Weichers. “We have done this for 10 years; maybe it’s someone else’s turn to host the marathon with a different route.”
“I wish there was more upsides for Cottonwood Heights. I don’t see them. It’s our main corridor and it gets cut off completely,” said Councilmember Doug Peterson.
“I can understand why it’s become a real challenge,” said Councilmember Ellen Birrell. “We need to consider the change.”
Coming to a consensus, the mayor, councilmembers, and city employees do not think continuing the marathon is advantageous for the city.
Moving forward, the Big Cottonwood Marathon will not take place within Cottonwood Heights. However, plans for this year’s event were finalized before these conversations. The 2022 Big Cottonwood Marathon is scheduled for Sept. 10.