SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Savannah expects a tourism windfall this weekend as thousands of runners from across the U.S. take a 26.2-mile, musically-enhanced grand tour of Georgia's oldest city during its second Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.
Organizers of the race, which spices up the traditional marathon formula with rock bands and cheerleaders along the course, say more than 17,000 people have registered. Hotels are mostly full and local officials say the event should be Savannah's second-largest tourist event this year, trailing only the city's famously massive St. Patrick's Day celebration.
An economic impact study conducted after Savannah's first marathon last year estimated visitors spent $32 million over five days. While registration is down a few thousands runners from a year ago, the city's tourism bureau expects each marathon participant will bring at least one non-running guest, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. He said visitors were expected to start arriving Thursday, with most leaving Sunday or Monday.
"We certainly expect upward of 25,000 people in town, probably more," said Marinelli, adding that those who stay even one extra night make a big difference. "With a dinner Sunday evening and breakfast on Monday, that spending goes up exponentially."
Savannah is the smallest of the 26 cities on the 2012 tour schedule of the Rock 'n' Marathon, which started in California in 1998.
On Saturday, runners following both full and half-marathon courses will wind through Savannah's downtown historic district with its oak-shaded squares and into surrounding residential neighborhoods. The race starts in front of City Hall at 8 a.m.
"I'm just so excited!" Mayor Edna Jackson said at a kickoff news conference Thursday in Johnson Square near the starting line. "I'm looking to being right here on Bay Street to wave at all of the runners as they go by."
For those with other plans, the road race could make getting around town a hassle from sun-up to mid-afternoon Saturday. Savannah police have planned more than 60 road closures across the city between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.
And many downtown business owners last year found the marathon to be more of a bust than a boon, said Ruel Joyner, president of the Savannah Downtown Business Association.
Fearing parking shortages and gridlock downtown, organizers last year encouraged runners and spectators to catch shuttle buses to the starting line on race day. As soon as the celebratory wrap-up concert finished in Forsyth Park, crowds got back on the buses and left. Joyner said hotels and restaurants saw profits, but a survey of his association's 175 member businesses found retailers and others suffered.
"We were expecting to just be flooded with business," said Joyner, who owns a downtown furniture store. "That Saturday, the day of the race, we did $200 in business. It was a ghost town, but you had people prepared for it to be a madhouse."
Changes have been made this year to help boost traffic downtown, Marinelli said. Runners are being encouraged to park downtown and are being sold space in downtown garages in advance.
Overall, officials say they're convinced the marathon is a money-maker for Savannah at a time of year when tourism typically starts to slow down. The city's contract with race organizers the Competitor Group calls for one more Rock 'n' Roll race in 2013. Marinelli said he's working to negotiate another three-year deal to keep the marathon coming back through 2016.
"There are not many events we're going to do in the course of a given year that are going to bring 20,000 people into the city for a couple of days," Marinelli said.