Columbia-based endurance race organizer to shut down

The struggling Columbia Triathlon Association, which has run endurance races throughout Maryland for 30 years and helped raise millions for local charities, plans to turn all its events over to the World Triathlon Corp. and will shut down, the chairman of its board said.

"WTC is taking over all the events," said Todd Jennings, chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit association, also known as TriColumbia. "Once they take over the races, we'll officially shut down the organization and dissolve it."

The two organizations still are working out the details of the arrangement, he said.

Officials of the WTC, a for-profit company that licenses the Ironman races, did not return phone calls seeking comment. The Tampa, Fla.-based company runs events around the world, including the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Its website already shows one TriColumbia race, the Eagleman triathlon, which is an Ironman qualifier.

Jennings said he expects the seven other races on TriColumbia's 2014 schedule to go on, except the Choptank Bridge Swim, a new event scheduled for May in Cambridge, which has been canceled.

TriColumbia has been grappling with financial difficulties, prompting questions from many in the vibrant local triathlon community about whether its events would go off this year. Participants spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on race entry fees and equipment and train for months for such races.

Alan Davis, co-owner of Princeton Sports in Columbia and Baltimore and a longtime TriColumbia sponsor, was hopeful about the likely WTC takeover.

"I'm happy to hear the triathlons will continue," Davis said. "I'm sure myself and everyone else in the community is looking forward to working with them and carrying on the tradition of the CTA."

As the two organizations finalize the deal, TriColumbia and its founder and former race director were sued last week by two former employees who claim they were wrongly fired last fall for exposing alleged improper use of association money for the founder's personal expenses, including two houses and a Porsche.

In the suit filed in Howard County Circuit Court, Linda Congedo and John McAuliffe of West Friendship claim that "improper financial dealings" between the TriColumbia board and organization founder Robert Vigorito and his wife, Sharon, go back several years, and led eventually to an audit, dissension on the board and Vigorito's resignation in December 2012.

Vigorito, who founded the association in 1983, said Monday he could not comment on the claims in the lawsuit and has not hired a lawyer to respond to the suit.

"We're going to deal with it as we have to deal with it," said Vigorito, reached in Naples, Fla. "It was pretty surprising, to say the least."

Jennings blamed TriColumbia's financial problems on sloppy record keeping, and increased competition from other endurance races.

He declined to comment on the claims made in the lawsuit, other than to say the two former employees were fired for cause, and he said the board has documentation to show that.

Congedo and McAuliffe are claiming wrongful firing and breach of contract and are asking for an unspecified sum in damages.

Congedo declined to comment other than to say that she stands behind the claims and, "We're confident the truth will come out in court and we look forward to justice."

Soon after word of TriColumbia's financial troubles appeared in a report on the online triathlon magazine Slowtwitch a few weeks ago, Jennings said the WTC and several other organizations contacted him about working with TriColumbia. Jennings told The Baltimore Sun last month that TriColumbia was pursuing ways to save money and keep the organization afloat, as it was apparent there would not be enough money to run the entire 2014 schedule.

He said Monday the WTC emerged as the best organization able to stage the TriColumbia races, which are scheduled to start with the Iron Girl half-marathon in Columbia on April 27 and run through the Chesapeake Man racing festival in Cambridge on Sept. 20.

It's not clear what will happen to the charitable aspect of TriColumbia races, although Jennings said World Triathlon is known to donate money in areas where its races are held.

Vigorito estimated last month that the association had helped to raise millions of dollars over the years for charities, including the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, The Arc Howard County and Girls on the Run. Some organizations received donations from TriColumbia, others bought race spots to allow participants to raise money for their cause.

The Cool Kids Campaign, based in Towson, only started working with TriColumbia last year as a team of 15 women running in the Iron Girl half-marathon. They raised about $10,000, said the executive director, Sharon Perfetti.

"It is disappointing. We did have a group of women that loved that Iron Girl," said Perfetti, adding, however, that the change won't have a great impact on her group.

"It's a sad day," Jennings said. "In this day and age in business, change is inevitable."

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