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Race organizer TriColumbia plots way to get back on track

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The Columbia Triathlon Association — one of the country's premier endurance race organizers — expects to be taking event registrations again and offering reassurance to nervous athletes on its website next week after drafting a plan to put the organization on sound financial footing.

"Races will all be open…We're happy about that, " said Todd Jennings, chairman of the board of directors for the 30-year-old nonprofit that has helped raised millions for charity and stages the EagleMan, a 70.3-mile triathlon in Cambridge, a qualifying event for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

Jennings said the association "needs to be in rebuilding mode" after discovering sloppy record-keeping practices that left the Howard County-based organization short of the money it would need to get through the year.

Jennings spoke Friday after a few grueling days during which the six-member board held an emergency meeting and sought legal and financial advice regarding money problems discovered in months of work by a new chief financial officer. As a precaution, he said, the board decided to stop taking registrations for all events, and shut down most of its website, sending waves of anxiety through the world of endurance racing.

Speculation this past week, particularly on social media, painted a dire picture, but Jennings said the association, also known as TriColumbia, is not in debt. He said the association has money in the bank, but appears $250,000 to $500,000 short of the $1.4 million it will need to get through the year.

The 2014 schedule includes nine events starting with the Iron Girl half marathon in Columbia on April 27 and ending with the ChesapeakeMan in Cambridge, a 140.6-mile triathlon on Sept. 20. The largest event, EagleMan, held in early June, draws up to 2,700 athletes, many from other countries.

While EagleMan has sold out this year as in the past, registrations overall have declined recently with the advent of competing events, said Jennings, who joined the board along with the other members about 10 months ago. The association board was not adjusting to competition, and also was not keeping careful records of revenue and expenses, he said.

The organization's founder, Robert Vigorito, estimated that TriColumbia has helped raise and donated between $8 million and $9 million to charities since it began in 1984. Charity partners have included The Arc of Howard County, the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Vigorito declined to comment on the current difficulties, except to say the organization has touched the lives of many people and he hoped the board could continue that work.

In maintaining the charitable practice, Jennings said "we were giving away money we didn't have to give."

He said three staff members were laid off last summer, leaving seven now, and no further layoffs are planned. He said the board rejected the idea of filing for bankruptcy protection.

The association will look for ways to save money, will consider working with other organizations and will consider introducing new events to raise revenue. The board will also review entry fees, which in some cases are lower than for similar events around the country.

Fees now range from $95 for shorter races to $300 for the EagleMan, as compared with $325 and $350 for other 70.3-mile triathlons, Jennings said. He said it can cost between $100,000 and $400,000 to stage a race.

Supporters of the organization said they were relieved to hear all events are on and the board has a plan.

"We love the organization," said Kathy Barnett, executive director of Girls on the Run of Central Maryland, which raises about $10,000 a year in several TriColumbia events.

"I think it will be fine," said Alan Davis, president of a main sponsor, Princeton Sports, who remembers working with the organization when it started in 1984. He emphasized the significant economic benefit of the races, and the need to support local events.

"This ought to be a big wake-up call for everybody, a disturbing wake-up call," Davis said. "You have to support local events or local businesses or they're going to go away."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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