Thursday, June 23, 2016

Analysis of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors Meeting

What an evening.

There were two items on the agenda of Wednesday night's Board of Directors meeting for The Woodlands Township that related to endurance sports events.

They were as follows:

Receive, consider and act upon changes to Special Events Policies and Procedures including, but not limited to, noise, hours and locations for special events occurring within the Township; 

Receive, consider and act upon a Host Venue Sponsorship Agreement for The Woodlands Marathon;

I personally was unable to attend last month's meeting where discussion first occured regarding potential changes to The Township's Special Events Policies and Procedures.

I watched the video stream live online and communicated during the session with Todd Cooper, a 12-time Ironman (and Penn State graduate) who is a resident of The Township and was in the meeting chambers.

I changed my work hours yesterday so I could be in attendance.

There were just six endurance sports-minded individuals who didn't have a responsibility to be there.

Actually, one, The Woodlands Marathon race director Willie Fowlkes, needed to be there in case there were questions regarding the Host Venue Sponsorship Agreement that his organization had in front of the Board for the race.

The others were Chris Strait (StraitSpeed and The Woodlands Marathon's elite athlete coordinator), Pam Meaux (who was there to support a residents' concern about future flooding prevention efforts to be taken), Rich Cooper (Volte; formerly Woodlands Fit), myself and a gentleman who I see at The Woodlands High School cross country and track meets but I don't recall his name.

Fortunately, there were no residents to speak during the Public Comment portion of the Board meeting in regards to the disruptions caused by major athletic events such as The Woodlands Marathon, CB&I, Ironman Texas, Ten For Texas or Run Thru The Woods.

There actually was one resident who spoke about the prestige and the community benefits that is brought to The Woodlands as a result of these events happening as well as he and his family's personal health and well-being being benefitted from them.

The one who did have a responsibility to be there was multi-time Ironman finisher and frequent event sponsor Bret Strong of The Strong Firm, whose firm provides legal services to The Township.

So, what's at play here?

As I understand it from multiple people, the Board has had voiced to it - and has personally experienced - road closure issues with races and sound issues from festivals and such held at Township parks.

Parks and Recreation Department, led on the task by Chris Nunes, provided at the last Board meeting a detailed list of the major events and whether these races had significant traffic and/or economic impacts and whether the Township was a producer or a sponsor.  Most of them, they have a skin in the game.

The perception coming out of last month's meeting from the Board was that events are stacked too close together and the same neighborhoods are being affected.

And that those events are landlocking folks in their neighborhoods for too long.

The two races that are the closest are CB&I and Ironman Texas, typically within three weeks of each other.  Presumably a new date hasn't been set for CB&I yet since Ironman Texas isn't final (or at least it hasn't been published).  It is supposedly referenced in the agreement with the World Triathlon Corporation that Ironman Texas for the foreseeable future will be on the third Saturday of April.  John Powers articulated that date each year last night.

So Chris and his team went and put together really just an incredible document that tracked every single event in The Township that Parks and Recreation did work on.

They shared revenues and expenses, the amount of time (not in salaries and benefits numbers) that their staff put in on each event as well as other pertinent information and a future recommendation for that specific event.

They also listed every single event - not just races, mind you, but festivals, etc., whatever - in the Township, which park it was held in and what the community impacts were.

It was an impressive 108-page masterpiece.

One thing I gleaned is that The Township made a profit on the athletic races, which funds a lot of the programs in The Parks and Recreation Department, but other events, including those with the CV&B were high in expenses and few in revenues.

In that Operational Plan, he also addressed the amplified sound issues in Town Green and North Shore Park that Director Bass so loudly himself - not a negative reference; just ironic - voiced his concern about in the May and June Board Meetings.

That, however, all got lost in one line of one item of 12 bulleted recommendations.

The two items that had the most potential impact on endurance sports events were:

1.  Reschedule the CB&I Triathlon and / or Memorial Hermann 10 for Texas to different months than currently produced to reduce the number of race events in the community that necessitate a street and/or lane closure that have been occurring within a few weeks of each other

2.  Provided the Counties approve Township’s role in approving use of public roads, events requiring road or lane closures cannot occur if another event has been permitted for closing the same roads/ lanes two weeks before or two weeks after. All road and lane closures must provide traffic alternate routes of ingress/egress from neighborhoods. No events will be permitted to close a public road or lane for more than 4 hours, except the Ironman Texas

One of the ideas listed on page 33 of the Operational Plan was:

Review the possibility of moving the race to late summer/early fall to reduce community conflicts with Texas Ironman and The Woodlands Marathon.

This would address the Board's concerns about events that heavily impact traffic multiple times, but what I expressed via Twitter last night is:  "Where do you put it on the schedule?"

I thought that it might be hard to place it in the middle of the well-attended Onurmark triathlon races.  Then again, maybe people will flock to it then.

The discussion was free-wheeling.

Initially, Chris was even directly questioned by one of the Directors if he wanted to see the marathon killed, in essence.  Of course, I don't think that was Chris' intentions at all.  My perception is that he was trying to find a way to address the Board's already expressed concerns.

Willie Fowlkes got up during the public comment section and drew attention to the four-hour limit and noted that CB&I closed Lake Woodlands down at the finish line for more than four hours.  (At least from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., if not a little bit longer, but no more than six hours.)

Armed with that information, the Directors moved away from a firm, fixed time frame and that the Operational Plan was more of a set of guidelines that gave Parks and Recreation that ability to tell events "No".

Recent changes that require events to have a traffic control plan, pre-race highway notification devices, etc. had already stemmed the number of requests of potential new events in the community that are produced on the roadways.

Director McMullan steered the conversation to hammer home a point he made in the last Board Meeting that the economic impact benefits weren't really that much to the average homeowner's property taxes.

With the growth of The Woodlands recently, it's properly less than a couple of Starbucks coffees or lattes.

Director Bunch, an athlete himself and Ironman Texas finisher, noted - as he did so well in the May Board Meeting - the community benefits in addition to the prestige of The Woodlands.  Initially, last month, that didn't seem - in my mind - to impress Director Bass too much, but I sensed that he agreed with Gordy's take on that last night.

I gather currently the limitation of events between one another is currently two weeks (CB&I and Ironman Texas is currently three) and Director McMullen was aggressively adamant about 4-6 weeks between events.

Director Fillault asked, "Are we really closing areas off weekend after weekend?"

I personally was encouraged with that line of questioning because my concern was Fillault's stance on endurance events after she defeated Bruce Tough in the elections last November.  Former Director Tough was an ardent supporter of the endurance sports community in The Woodlands.

She also advocated better communication to the community, if they're inclined to listen (which I've personally found to be a challenge, especially with The Woodlands Marathon / SAT issue this past March).

Director Snyder was concerned of losing these races because of rules that would be too restrictive and that is when Director Bunch advocated grandfathering the existing events, which makes a lot of sense.

Director Bass, however, in a fair point, stated that at some point in time all events should have to follow the same rules, allowing for a transition time period; however, he was quick to wield power that he didn't yet have stating that The Township - even if Montgomery County Commissioner's approved road closure and the traffic control plan - could deny to issue a Special Events permit.

It went round and round with multiple motions - and retractions of motions - for future action at next month's Board of Directors meeting.

So more to come there.

The next item, with John Powers taking to the podum, was to discuss the renewing of The Woodlands Township's Host Venue Sponsorship Agreement with The Woodlands Marathon.

Grown out of the type of agreement that the World Triathlon Corporation has with The Township, The Woodlands Marathon had a five-year agreement that just expired.

Both parties provided the other with certain items or services.

The Marathon looked to The Township allow for use of Town Green, South Shore and Shadowbend Park, provide waste management and security services and to make available the use of 40 pop-up tents, for example.

The Marathon would provide an influx of 4,000 individuals, guarantee 150 hotel nights, provide VIP packages to The Township and give $41,000 -- $20,000 in donations to not-for-profit organizations, $20,000 for local and regional volunteer organizations and $1,000 for the Parks and Recreation Department.

The new proposed agreement called for similar responsibilities from The Township, adding Terramont Park, in-kind use of electronic message boards to notify residents and in-kind usage of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion multipurpose building for the Expo.

The latter item would bring athletes back to Market Street after the traffic nightmares from hosting this year's Expo at Legends Sports Complex; however, "dry-floor event" policies and procedures hadn't been established yet as noted in The Township's pre-meeting synopsis of the Agenda item.

The Marathon, in its proposal, stated an influx of 25,000 athletes, media, staff, VIPs and spectators, guarantee approximately 400 hotel nights and change the financial outlay to no less than $26,000.  $25,000 combined, instead of $20,000 each, for the two categories stated above and $1,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department.

As I stated in an earlier Facebook posting, I'm no longer a member of The Woodlands Marathon committee.  I rolled off because I didn't know if I was going to have some work responsibilities with a systems conversion at a hospital that I am performing consulting services at the weekend of the 2016 event.

I was never aware of the details of the Host Venue Sponsorship Agreement while on the Marathon team.  (I did jump in and provide some in-kind media relations services during this year's event.)

Therefore, I don't know if - whatever tracking is used to prove hotel nights related to the Marathon, if that comes through the CV&B's surveys of the local hotels and their tracking (which I've seen in other cities that I've witnessed with another event director that receives HOT monies from) - the Marathon has to make that up at 'x' number of dollars per room for every one that they're short.

The biggest surprise was a proposed 10-year term, which I stated on Twitter was unprecedented for an event its size.

I found three races that have these:

+ The Pittsburgh Marathon has a 10-year title sponsorship agreement with Dick's Sporting Goods.

+ The Boston Marathon has 10-year deals with Adidas and John Hancock that don't expire until 2023 and 2024, respectively.

+ The New York City Marathon just inked a 10-year sponsorship deal with New Balance this past December.

But, you don't get what you don't ask for, right?

Director Robb seemed to imply that there might have been some limit of five years that The Township could commit to, but that wasn't real clear.

Director McMullan, who was actually the only Director in any vote last night that voted against any motion or proposal, advocated a 1- or 2-year deal, almost as if the relationship between the two parties hadn't been good.  And that's something that I've never sensed.

John Powers seemed to be in support of a longer agreement.

These were my takeaways from last night's meeting.

I'm an optimist and believe that these things will get worked out.

I've always stated that I don't know of one race director that wants to stick it to the people whose lives they temporarily interrupt for a few hours.  And I still believe that.

With the exception of Ironman Texas, the races held within The Woodlands Township are pretty much uniquely for the residents of The Township.

CB&I and Ten For Texas, as well as Run Thru The Woods, are considered "hometown races" and The Woodlands Marathon is becoming so.

I've always have seen 60-70% numbers in registrations for these races that come from The Woodlands, Spring and Montgomery County and maybe even more for the Muddy Trails Bash, which doesn't impede much traffic at all.

The very first year of Ironman Texas, there were more finishers from the state of the host venue than any other domestic Ironman (140.6) than ever before.

The bottom line is that athletes who complain about residents complaining loudly need to become more engaged and carry the positive message out regularly and consistently.

Anything less just isn't acceptable anymore.  Sorry.

You want to race on the streets that are closed specifically for you?  You're going to have to start to better state your case to do so.

But isn't having these well-produced events in the community your justification for not having to drive to the Houston and parts further south to race?

Then put a helmet on and step into the batter's box and take a few cuts.

The next collective swing?  The July 27th Board of Directors Township Meeting.  If you're reading this, make plans to be there.

(Note:  I don't mind taking the lead on matters like this, but I can clearly state - and I have in a communication earlier after Ironman Texas to the Board and the County Commissioners - that my life - and that of my daughter's - has clearly benefited from these events over the last 13 years.  If I've errored in any perceptions or recollections from last night above, please let me know and I'll make corrections.  The bottom line, to me, though, is that more people need to step up and put their money where their mouth is.  And you just can't put the weight on those who are already pretty well-connected and involved such as Fowlkes, Sutherland, Fry, Lyons and such.)

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