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Oak Harbor mayor, council at odds over marathon coordinator's future

Tamra Sipes, shown at left during this year’s Whidbey Marathon, will meet with Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley this week to discuss her future as the coordinator of the annual event. They mayor wants to let Sipes go, the City Council wants to keep her. - Photo provided
Tamra Sipes, shown at left during this year’s Whidbey Marathon, will meet with Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley this week to discuss her future as the coordinator of the annual event. They mayor wants to let Sipes go, the City Council wants to keep her.
— image credit: Photo provided

Changes are coming to the management of the Whidbey Island Marathon, whether or not the City Council is on board with them, says Mayor Scott Dudley.

At odds on past occasions, the mayor and the council are once again fighting over control of the city.

This time, the tussle is over whether or not to keep longtime Oak Harbor resident Tamra Sipes as coordinator of the annual marathon.

CITY COUNCIL members, particularly Councilwoman Beth Munns, spent a great deal of the council’s Tuesday meeting gushing about the success of the marathon, which this year had the highest number of participants in the 13 years the race has existed.

The city has owned it for five years.

A little more than 2,800 people ran in the full and half marathons this past April.

Munns asked to have the issue of the contract for the race coordinator brought forward on the agenda, pointing out that Sipes needs to start working on next year’s marathon as early as possible.

“Usually the day after an event you get one free day and then you start again planning for the next one,” she said.

The council unanimously voted to consider a two-year contract for the position no later than July 1.

THE TROUBLE is, it’s up to Dudley to decide who will fill that role.

While several council members made it clear they are confident that Sipes is the right person for the job, Dudley said he doesn’t agree.

The mayor said he isn’t happy with the work Sipes has done and wants to look into other options, including finding a nonprofit group to run the race. He said participation steadily declined until this year, when it skyrocketed due to — what he claims — is Sipes’ decision to cut runners’ fees.

As a result, Sipes received a $23,000 bonus for the increase in participants, which is on top of her $28,000 contract amount.

AT THE SAME time, the marathon was a net money loser for the city, Dudley said.

The finance director calculated that it cost the city $37,000 to put on this year’s event.

“Once again, we have a council that wants to take care of their friend at the expense of the city,” he said.

“The only one who’s making money is Tamra Sipes.”

ACCORDING TO data provided by the mayor’s office, both revenue from participation fees and the total revenue — which includes contributions — dropped every year until 2014.

Total revenues were $172,000 in 2010; by 2013, it was down to $118,000. At the same time, expenses increased.

For the 2014 marathon, the total revenues were $153,000, but expenses were at an all time high of $190,000.

Dudley said he is a supporter of the marathon and believes it’s good for the city, but he also believes it could make money if done well. He said the event planner should focus on creating “a marathon weekend experience” with such events as a beer garden.

DUDLEY ALSO said he was upset that Sipes didn’t “buy local” when it came to things like purchasing T-shirts and renting port-a-potties.

Sipes, however, said the mayor isn’t being fair. She said she’s “acquaintances” with all of the council members, but not close, personal friends.

She said their support of her doesn’t have anything to do with friendships or personalities.

And the idea of tying a bonus to increased participation was the mayor’s idea and that it started two years ago, Sipes said.

Dudley admits he came up with the bonus idea, adding he believed increasing participation was vital.

“I wasn’t doing it for the bonus or for the money,” Sipes said.

“The reason I was coordinating the marathon is because I love doing this great event that has such a great importance to the city.”

SIPES SAID she came up with the idea for a limited-time promotion to boost participation based on the fact that it was the 13th year of the event being held on April 13.

The “retro rates” cut the fees for the full marathon from $75 to $39; the half marathon was cut from $55 to $29. She said she ran the idea through City Administrator Larry Cort and received his approval.

Sipes said the response to the promotion was far greater than she expected. About 1,500 of the participants got in on the low rates. The remaining 1,949 participants paid the full fees.

THE BIG jump in participation, Sipes said, was also connected to national media attention the marathon received over the last year. It has become an internationally known event — and a qualifier for the Boston Marathon — that brought in people from six foreign countries.

Plus, the weather was perfect.

During her presentation to the council, Sipes focused on the economic impact the race has on the community.

Based on a report by the Washington Tourism Alliance, she estimated that the event brought in about $679,000 in economic activity to the community.

She said that’s a very conservative estimate and only takes into account participants, not their families or friends who may have tagged along.

SIPES SAID that all of Oak Harbor’s 341 hotel rooms were filled that weekend, and more than 1,700 of the runners came from more than 50 miles away, which resulted in increased spending.

Sipes said the annual delay in getting a contract for the following year’s event has stymied her ability to obtain sponsorships and market the race; she sent an email to council members earlier this year asking for the decision on the contract to be made as soon as possible.

Sipes also said that the mayor isn’t taking into account increased sales tax collections when he said the marathon loses money for the city.

She estimates the event is actually an overall money maker for the city when tax collections are factored in.

MUNNS QUESTIONED whether the point of the marathon is to make money for city coffers or to help businesses.

“Is this event supposed to make money or is it supposed to be a way to bring in people to spend money in our city?” she asked.

Dudley said he’s not certain what the future holds for the management of the marathon. He said he’s meeting with Sipes next week to discuss the contract.

But he’s sure of one thing.

“Signing a two-year contract with Tamra Sipes is not the answer,” he said.

“Something has got to change.”

 

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