Frederick is a fun city and a marketing dream, with one event after another from spring to summer to fall, with little pause until the cold dark days of January and February. An inviting, vibrant and historic downtown area full of shops and restaurants beckons for miles around to those looking for something to do.
Add to that appeal the seemingly never-ending litany of planned events designed to attract even more people, and the area’s collective social calendar rarely has any blank dates. But a confluence of circumstances on a recent weekend may have raised the question in more than a few minds whether you can have too much of a good thing.
On the weekend of Sept. 8-9, “event fatigue” reached critical mass, with the city’s popular In The Street festival on Saturday attracting thousands and the apparently even more popular “Tough Mudder” endurance race at Crumland Farms off U.S. 15 just outside the city attracting thousands more.
That morning, thousands of clueless motorists, many of whom had never heard of Tough Mudder or who weren’t much interested in the block party, found themselves stuck in one of the worst local gridlocks in memory that lasted for hours.
Roads became parking lots on most of the major arteries in and around the city, especially on U.S. 15 as participants and fans of the Tough Mudder race tried to get to the event. Many gave up; others merely trying to run errands had to bail, while some motorists abandoned their vehicles on the side of the road. Others were literally held hostage in their homes by the slow-rolling backup.
It all went downhill from there, with a flurry of complaints, finger-pointing and, by day’s end, cancellation of Sunday’s second day of Tough Mudder. In between, even nature had something to say about the fiasco, sending a deluge Saturday afternoon that dampened the street celebration and turning Tough Mudder into an even greater obstacle course and its parking area into a quagmire.
Meanwhile, city police, spread too thin between the two events, had more than they could handle. Maryland State Police had to help with traffic on U.S. 15, but deputies from the Frederick Sheriff’s Office were conspicuously absent from the fiasco, since Sheriff Chuck Jenkins had reportedly washed his hands of the mess in advance.
In the acrimonious aftermath after the cancellation of Sunday’s competition, angry Mudder fans wanted their money back, phones and Facebook lit up with complaints, harried police were glad no one died and mostly everyone was scratching their heads over why such a disharmonious convergence was allowed to happen in the first place.
A spokesman for Mayor Randy McClement said officials would take a look at closing “a gap” in the city’s permitting process that has little control over events being held on private property. A zoning permit was all Tough Mudder organizers had to have to put on their event, a fun obstacle course based on a British Army competition that also helps raise money for the worthy Wounded Warrior Project.
The permit only ensures adequate parking, first aid and emergency exits, and imposes no restrictions on traffic impact. The city is now trying to come up with an ordinance to address such special events on private property that spill over into the public domain. It’s a good idea, even if it is a day late and a dollar short.
It was a perfect storm of poor planning, with more than enough blame to go around. In hindsight, shuttle buses could have been used to get people to the event, and other parking venues could have been arranged.
Yet the general consensus seems to be that Tough Mudder should be given another chance next year if the organizers wish to return, as long as they come up with a better plan to put on the event, and that’s fine. Bringing people to the area is generally good for the economy, and keeps Frederick on the map, helping avoid the kind of downtown decay occurring up the road in Hagerstown.
But there also needs to be a stronger appreciation among planners that such events can affect the quality of life for residents. Some county residents who want to come downtown for a lunch or dinner and a little shopping, decide to stay home rather than deal with the hassle of so many competing events and finding a parking space. Even downtown residents can find themselves imprisoned by the multitude of happenings.
A quiet walk on a downtown street without the blare of a nearby band or the din of bumper-to-bumper traffic is an occasional relief devoutly wished by many.