Between 3,000 and 5,000 runners are expected to be lured to Harford County and Havre de Grace next September for a new running festival that includes a half marathon race on both sides of the Susquehanna River.
Called the Susquehanna Bridge Running Fest, the event will benefit Harford County’s Al Cesky Scholarship Fund.
As the festival’s name implies, the route of the 13.1-mile (21.09K) half marathon will include runners crossing and recrossing the Thomas J. Hatem Route 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River on a scenic course through both Harford and neighboring Cecil County.
The Maryland Transportation Authority already has approved use of the bridge, according to race organizers, and Monday evening the Havre de Grace City Council gave its approval for the festival to use Tydings Park as the center for the running festival.
The approval did not come without some concerns being expressed by council members, however.
The Cesky scholarship fund, founded in memory of the late Bel Air High School athletic coach, assistant principal and school administrator Al Cesky, annually awards $2,000 scholarships to two seniors — a male and female — at each of Harford County’s 12 public and private high schools. Among this group, one male and one female each receives a $5,000 scholarship.
“That’s $54,000 each year. Obviously, that’s a lot of money, and college expenses are going up,” Dominic Corson, events coordinator and immediate past president of the Cesky Scholarship Fund, said Monday afternoon. “We want to be able to increase our awards.”
The scholarships are based on academic and athletic excellence and are awarded at a banquet each spring. Finalists are selected by their respective schools, with the top award winners then being selected by the Cesky organization, a Harford County based nonprofit established in the months after Mr. Cesky’s death in 1985 by friends and former players.
The running festival is set for Sept. 15, 2018 and will include a half-marathon, a half-marathon relay and a 5K. Each will begin and end at Tydings Park.
The half marathon route will take runners over the Hatem Bridge into Perryville and then through Perry Point VA Medical Center and Perryville Community Park, which will be halfway point and the exchange for the half-marathon relay.
“It’s going to be great, a really good event. It’s going to be gorgeous, with great views looking down the Chesapeake Bay,” Corson said. “Every runner I’ve talked to is excited and can’t wait to sign up, local runners especially.”
The half-marathon has been in the works for several years, but getting approval from state transportation officials to run on Route 40 and to cross the bridge was key, Corson said.
The county is facilitating the event, which included assistance in negotiations with the state for access to the bridge. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman this fall signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maryland Transportation Authority for this purpose.
“This is going to be a great run,” Glassman, an avid runner, said in a phone interview Monday. “We expect a lot of tourists to come in; it will be a big boost for us.”
Harford has a lot of 5Ks and an active running group, but the Susquehanna Bridge Run Fest will bring people to Harford County from all over, he said.
“Runners look for something a little different,” said Glassman, who competes in most of the local races. “To run across the river is neat.”
He intends to run the half-marathon and said he told members of his cabinet they need to start training for September.
“It will be fun, we can’t wait,” he said.
The county administration will also be providing security and emergency planning, Glassman said.
Race organizers will limit the number of runners, especially the first year, Corson said. He said the target will be about 3,000 runners, possibly up to 5,000.
“We want to keep it at a manageable scale. We don’t want it to be a zoo,” he said.
Many of the details still have to be worked out, including the costs of each race and whether the Hatem bridge will be closed to traffic.
Organizers are working that out with the Maryland Transportation Authority, organizer Sean McCone told the Havre de Grace council members Monday.
The preferred option, he said, is to close the eastbound span of the bridge to traffic and reduce traffic on the westbound span to one lane in each direction.
Some HdG concerns
After a series of questions from the council, plus a move to delay making a decision, the council voted 4-2 to approve the festival. Council President Dave Glenn and Councilman David Martin voted against it.
Both said they support the race but believe there are too many unanswered questions.
One of the big unknowns, Glenn said, if which traffic option MdTA will select on the bridge.
“That’s outside the scope of [the organizers], anyone on this dais. Until we know that, we’re not in a position to vote,” he said, in making a motion to postpone voting.
Councilman Michael Hitchings pointed out that the application states that if the event “goes off the rails and we can’t support it, we have the opportunity to pull the plug.” He said it was important for the city to give its approval so organizers can work out the details.
“I’d like to move forward and not hamper them. It’s worth the risk on our part to stay highly involved,” Hitchings said.
In addition to traffic on the Hatem bridge, Glenn said he’s concerned about how many runners will be participating. He recalled a meeting with organizers and Police Chief Teresa Walter when it was determined the maximum number of runners would be 2,500.
“We had a meeting where the cap was at 2,500 and the application comes in at 5,000,” Glenn said. “That initially sends a red flag up. I have an obligation to my residents.”
He’s also concerned about whether Havre de Grace residents who use the Hatem bridge and have to be diverted to the Tydings Bridge, will get a reduced rate on their EZ Passes.
There are also concerns about having so many people at the run — where they would park and how they would get to and from the start and finish line.
McCone assured the council members organizers will continue to communicate with them as plans develop and will keep their suggestions in mind when planning the festival.
No half-marathon has been held in Harford County since 1982 when there was the last running of the John D. Worthington III Half Marathon through the streets of Bel Air.
The demise of that race, named in honor of a late co-owner and co-publisher of The Aegis, forced local runners to seek longer distances elsewhere. The half marathon was succeeded by the annual Bel Air Town Run, a 5K race held in early June that typically draws approximately 1,000 runners.