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Things did not go as planned Saturday at the Hot Chocolate 5K/15K at National Harbor. Traffic was a factor, with some runners never making it to the race. But thousands of runners say that the problems went well beyond that. We talk to people involved in the planning and execution of the race about what went wrong.
- Aubrey Thagard Assistant Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Economic Development and Public Infrastructure, Prince George's County
- David Wallach Chief Marketing Officer, RAM Racing
- Rocell Viniard Vice President, Director of Marketing, The Peterson Companies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA charity race last Saturday at National Harbor was described as an epic fail by press and by participants. Twenty thousand runners registered for the event, but huge traffic and parking snarls kept many race participants from even reaching the start of the race. Once the race got started, late, the lead runners were directed off course causing even more headaches, and crowding brought the race to a standstill in places.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRace organizers apologized, which may not be enough for the more -- hundreds of participants who zinged the race on Facebook and Twitter and the venue, National Harbor, didn't need this latest headache either. Just last week, Disney pulled out of a deal to build a resort hotel at National Harbor, a setback for Prince George's County officials who hoped National Harbor could be an engine for growth in the community.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the race and later on maybe what's next for National Harbor, we will start with Zurida (sp?) who is a recreational runner who participated in the race. She's a mother of two, lives in Arlington, she's run about 30 races it's my understanding it's my understanding over the course of the past two years. Zurida, thank you for joining us.
ZURIDAOh, thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding you were planning to run the 5K, but you ended up doing at least 6 or 7K given that you had to start on the Wilson Bridge?
ZURIDAWell, yeah. There was no way we were gonna make it to the -- I drove with a few friends, and there was no way that I was gonna make it to the start line on time, well, at least I thought I wasn't going to.
NNAMDIIt was supposed to start at 7:30.
ZURIDAYes, at 7:30, but -- so I took off, I jumped out the car and I ran probably about a mile or so across the bridge to get to National Harbor, and then an additional mile or so to the start line, and I wasn't the only one who was doing that either. So yes, I did run a little farther than I thought I would that morning.
NNAMDIWhy couldn't you get there for 7:30?
ZURIDAWell, because the traffic was backed up, oh, several miles before even the bridge. So -- and this was at about 6:30 in the morning. So there was just -- at that point -- and it was all race traffic, so there was -- at that point we knew that there was no way we were going to get there in time.
NNAMDISo after you finished running the mile to the starting point, what was the mood like when you got to the starting point of the race?
ZURIDAWell, I was grumpy and cold, and people were not happy. In fact, we were waiting for -- it was about an hour before the race started and a lot of people were chanting, you know, start the race, and as we eventually started running, people were also chanting...
NNAMDIWell, wait, before you started the running...
NNAMDI...I've participated in several races...
NNAMDI...and you usually have to use the facility before you go to the race. How about that?
ZURIDAWell, there were no bathrooms available, no portajohns available to the runners anywhere near the start line for both the 5 and the 15K runners. In fact, most of the bathroom facilities were at the top of the hill, I don't know, I'd say about a quarter mile or so from the start line. It could be closer, but it sure seemed a lot farther. So it wasn't convenient or practical for the racers to, you know, use the facilities before the race or even during the race.
NNAMDIOkay. Tell us about the run itself. As you were running, what did you encounter?
ZURIDAWell, it -- we encountered -- well, standing still for one in some parts, especially in the beginning of the race, it was a bottleneck. I'm not so sure what the final count for the 5K runners were, but we were all squished into very narrow sort of bike trail/jogging path around the National Harbor, which there was a ten-foot -- I'm assuming, it was sort of like a ten-foot drop into the water, you know, because it was a beautiful path, but it was certainly not big enough to accommodate all of us, and a lot of us ended up walking when we wanted to run and it was very frustrating, and I'm -- dangerous too I think at some points.
NNAMDIDid you eventually finish?
ZURIDAOh, yeah. Oh, we finished, but, you know, it was -- the thing about race day is, you know, no matter how much of the marketing and the organizing that, you know, selling that organizers want to do, what you really want at the end of the day is a good race day. You want to be able to say, okay, that was a lot of fun, and I have never been so dissatisfied and so frustrated and angry at the end of a race. I just wanted to rip my bib off and just go home.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone from Chicago is David Wallach. He's the chief marketing officer for RAM Racing, organizers of Saturday's Hot Chocolate 15 5K race at National Harbor. Again, you can call us at 800-433-8850. David Wallach, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID WALLACHThank you for having me, Kojo. I appreciate it. And right off the bat, I forgot the woman's name who you...
WALLACHZurida. But Zurida, I wanted to apologize to you and all of the people listening to all the people who ran, from the bottom of my heart, and from everyone at RAM Racing. We've been doing this for ten years.
NNAMDIWhat happened on Saturday, David?
WALLACHWe feel horribly for the experience that you and many of the runners had last weekend.
NNAMDIWhat happened last Saturday?
WALLACHThat's the most important thing. You know, Kojo, as most athletes know, putting on a race involves a lot of logistics, and unfortunately there was a domino failing of mishaps. At the end of the day, you know, it was our race, and we apologize for it, and for the experience that people had. It didn't turn nearly as great as we expected it, but we learned a lot and we're moving on, and, you know, we're gonna improve on everything. That's a guarantee.
NNAMDIWhat was the problem from your standpoint? National Harbor says the race was supposed to be capped at 5,000 participants, and it's my understanding that 20,000 people showed up. What happened?
WALLACHYou know, as far as National Harbor goes, they worked long and hard with us leading up to Saturday's race, and I know they're just as disappointed as we are. We have an amazing team of people who are -- have been going back and forth from the DC area for months trying to plan things and, you know, we learned a lot from this, and we -- and we are planning on making improvements, we're planning on making a better event next year, and we hope that people...
NNAMDIHow many people were you planning for, five, or ten, or 15, or 20,000?
WALLACHYou know, to be honest with you, we cut our registration off early, about a month early, a little bit more than a month early because we wanted to make sure that the experience that people had was a positive experience. And the thing that's the most important that everyone needs to remember, is that it's not about chocolate, and it's not about running for time, it's about making sure that everyone arrives, runs, and gets home safely...
WALLACH...and every single person did, and that to me is the most important thing.
WALLACHAnd everyone's safe, and they're able to voice their opinions.
NNAMDIOne of the important things is the charity that the race is being run to raise money for, how did that end up -- how much money did the race raise, what was the charity cause?
WALLACHOur national charitable partner is the Ronald McDonald House, and our goal for them is to raise over a million dollars, and we're working towards that every single day. We actually have people that traveled around the country earlier this year trying to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House at our own expense, so everything we do and everything we work towards is obviously a safe race, but also with our charitable partners nationally and locally involved.
NNAMDIWere you able to raise significant sums from this race for the Ronald McDonald fund?
WALLACHYes, we were. We're always raising money for the...
NNAMDIThe apology letter from RAM -- I'm sorry. Go ahead, please.
WALLACHAnother thing that we did locally that not a lot of people know about is we partnered with Back on My Feet and Clothes for the Homeless. So every single piece of clothing that was thrown aside, you know, when people run they start in layers, and they take off sweatshirts and t-shirts and gloves and hats and they throw them aside, and our team collected it and brought it to Clothes for the Homeless and Back on Our Feet so people who definitely need these type of clothes in this type of weather were getting a benefit from our race as well, which is something that we're very proud of.
NNAMDIThe apology letter, excuse me, from RAM Racing's owner, notes that "National Harbor was a terrible choice of venue," I quoted there. With ten years experience organizing races, why was it a terrible choice of venue? Is that something that RAM racing might have foreseen?
WALLACHYou know what, I don't think National Harbor is a terrible place, and neither does anyone here at RAM Racing. Again, we worked hard along with them leading up to Saturday's race, and I know they're disappointed. We've learned that if we're gonna have bigger races, we can probably -- we should definitely look at bigger places with more access points. They were great partners with us...
NNAMDIMore access points. More access points seems to be...
WALLACHThey were great partners with us and they stood -- pardon me?
NNAMDIMore access points seems to be a problem. A lot of participants are yelling, we want our money back. Will RAM Racing be issuing any refunds?
WALLACHUnfortunately, given to the fixed costs of this event, it doesn't allow for us to refund anyone's money.
NNAMDIDavid Wallach is the chief marketing officer for RAM Racing, organizers of Saturday's Hot Chocolate 15 5K race at National Harbor. David Wallach, thank you for joining us.
WALLACHThank you. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIZurida, thank you for joining us. But Zurida before you go, David Wallach apologized to you, is that an apology you accept?
ZURIDAOh, I'll accept it, but I won't be racing with them next year.
NNAMDII hear you. Thank you -- thank you very for joining us.
ZURIDAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone is Rocell Viniard, vice president and director of marketing for the Peterson Companies, the group that manages National Harbor. Rocell, thank you for joining us.
MS. ROCELL VINIARDThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Aubrey Thagard is assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and public infrastructure for Prince George's County. Aubrey Thagard, thank you for joining us.
MR. AUBREY THAGARDThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIRocell, a race like the Hot Chocolate 15K sounds a great event to bring to National Harbor, but is it possible that National Harbor is too eager to take on events that could overwhelm its resources?
VINIARDNo. I don't think that it's a matter of National Harbor being too eager to bring those types of events. We have, you know, successfully hosted, you know, a multiple amount of large scale events at National Harbor with Fourth of July, inaugural balls, Big Night DC, tree lighting, you know, just to name a couple of them, and each of these events have similar numbers and similar logistics...
VINIARDIn fact, our Fourth of July event we see between 20 to 40,000 people, and the reason you can't put an exact number is we know how exactly how number of cars pull on property, and you take an average number per car.
NNAMDIWell, cars, the parking in particular seemed to be an issue on Saturday, speaking of cars. National Harbor was responsible for the company, what happened with the parking on Saturday?
VINIARDYou know, there was a lot of things, you know, we worked with race officials, local residents, Prince George's County officials for six months to create a plan, you know, to manage the anticipated number of runners in this race, and it's obviously very clear that things didn't go as planned, and as David mentioned, you know, it was a domino effect of things that fall apart. And our goal is to always create a positive experience for all of our guests when they're coming to an event, shopping in our stores, or staying in our hotels.
VINIARDHowever, this particular event did not, you know, meet our brand standards, and it obviously didn't meet RAM Racing's brand standards. And, you know, we'll work, you know, hard on fixing those, you know, for future events.
NNAMDITo what extent what happened was to some extent unavoidable, and that is it would appear that one of the huge problems over which apparently neither you nor the racing organizers had any control was access. When the routes on the way to National Harbor have accidents or are blocked in either direction, you guys have a problem. Any way around that?
VINIARDYou know, there is not. You know, there is multiple roads and access points to get into, you know, to National Harbor, but when, you know, traffic or things fail, I mean, it does make it -- it does make it difficult, and those our unfortunately out of your control at that point, and you just have to do your best to minimize those moving forward.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to you, Aubrey Thagard. How does National Harbor fit into the county's economic development plans, and if National Harbor is in fact going to be as successful as you guys want it to be, don't you have to find ways of either, A, getting public transportation there, or, B, providing more access points to it?
VINIARDI mean, I would think...
THAGARDWell, I think that...
NNAMDINo. First -- this is for Aubrey. I'm sorry, Rocell.
VINIARDYeah. I was just gonna say...
VINIARD...Aubrey should answer that question.
NNAMDIYes, Aubrey, it's on you.
THAGARDWell, with regards to providing public transportation, the county has been very committed in trying to find ways to expand transportation there that includes not only Wilmette, but also through our own county bus system. We've had a lot of conversations on the local, state and federal levels with regards to expanding, for instance, the yellow line to National Harbor, and I think long term you're definitely gonna see some form of transit extended out there to National Harbor.
THAGARDThat problem is, I think, exacerbated by the fact that you have the reliable funding stream that could actually guarantee that services actually come out there, and that's something that we're quite frankly, you know, I'm constantly in terms of improving our transit systems in that part of the county.
NNAMDIHere is Yvette...
THAGARDBut it's easier said than done. It's easier said than done.
NNAMDII hear you.
THAGARDEspecially considering, you know, we would have to rely heavily on the federal government to make this happen, and we know that these days, there's not a lot of agreements taking place on Capitol Hill about city priorities.
NNAMDIHere is Yvette in Bowie, Md. Yvette, your turn.
YVETTEHi, Kojo. You know, I'm a big fan of yours. I just wanted to call in and say I ran the race. I was there. It was horrible. The problem with my county -- I'm a proud Prince Georgian. We have no vision. There's no reason that National Harbor -- it's been there in some form before it became National Harbor, it was going to become -- I mean, it's been how many years in the making? There was no thought to bringing more access there. There was no thought when they just opened up the new town center, and I forget the name of it, with the Wegmans.
YVETTENo way to get there. Same thing with the Reds Stadium. There is a Metro there, but it's a mile away. We cannot think busy, forwardly, anything and now we're paying the price. National Harbor will continue to have those problems and not be able to accommodate large crowds because there is no Metro access. It's all about accessibility, it's all about smart...
NNAMDIWell, we heard Rocell...
YVETTEIf our county recognizes that, we're gonna continue to have this problem.
NNAMDIWe heard Rocell say that National Harbor has hosted large crowds before, but everybody acknowledges that access seems to be a problem. Aubrey, can you talk a little bit about how National Harbor fits into the county's economic development plans?
THAGARDWell, it's fits in very less so as an important aspect of economic development, and it is, of course, a source of pride for the county in terms of the first class amenities that it is bringing to the county. I think that you'll be pressed to find a waterfront destination like that in the region. That's not to cast aspersions on anyone else in the region, but I think in terms of the totality of what National Harbor brings to the region and to the county, one would have to say that it's definitely a first-class destination.
THAGARDIt is important to the county that National Harbor continue to succeed. We have continuing...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, Aubrey, but I know that Disney pulled out a deal to build a 500-room resort hotel in National Harbor last Thursday. Can you tell us in about a minute or so what happened there and what are the alternative plans that you have?
THAGARDWell, we don't have any alternative plans currently with regards to that. Obviously, Disney decided to make a business decision with regards to not moving forward with the project at National Harbor. That was based on their own current business plans, not a reflection on Prince George's County or for that fact, National Harbor. They decided to put their efforts into one direction there. We understand that.
THAGARDWe're disappointed, but considering what we having coming to the National Harbor area in the form of Tangier Outlet Malls, that's gonna bring 400 new construction jobs, 800 permanent retail jobs, 80 premium outlet stores to the area...
NNAMDIThat's all coming to National Harbor -- can you give me quick time table for that?
THAGARDThat should be operational hopefully by 2013.
NNAMDIOkay. And I'm...
THAGARD2013 they'll be open, and...
NNAMDI...afraid that's all the time we have. Aubrey Thagard is assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and public administration -- public infrastructure for Prince George's County. Rocell Viniard is the vice president and director of marketing for the Peterson Companies, the group that manages National Harbor, something that we will be continuing to look at in the future. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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