Big South brings dollars, North Myrtle Beach books events for new sports complex

dbryant@thesunnews.comMarch 9, 2013 

— Tourism promoters along the Grand Strand want more weeks like this one.

Though a far cry from the peak summer crowds, thousands of visitors flocked to the beach for the Big South Conference Championships -- filling up hotels, eating at restaurants and picking up some souvenirs along the way.

It’s a prime example of the sports tourism events the Grand Strand is stepping up efforts to host, including the Big South basketball tournament, youth baseball tournaments and cheerleading events and a growing number of running events such as the Myrtle Beach Bi-Lo Marathon, and the Divas Half Marathon in North Myrtle Beach.

Officials love these types of events because they bring business to the beach -- especially during the slower times of year when local hotels and restaurants could use some more crowds. Sports tourism events in Myrtle Beach last year generated $132 million in direct spending, city officials have said.

“Sports tourism has proven itself to be a year-round economic driver for the Myrtle Beach area and is nearly a recession-proof travel segment -- making it a perfect fit for increasing our shoulder season travel population,” Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.

This is the first time the Big South event has taken place along the Grand Strand, with games played at the HTC Center in Conway, and the chamber estimated it could inject between $6 million and $8 million into the local economy.

The Grand Strand wants to lure more of those sports tourism dollars, and is building more venues that could host this growing segment of the tourism business nationally. Events now have taken place at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, at public fields such as those near The Market Common in Myrtle Beach and at private businesses such as The Ripken Experience-Myrtle Beach, which announced last week that it had attracted a team from Australia to participate in tournaments this summer for the second consecutive year.

Events booked for new North Myrtle Beach complex

In North Myrtle Beach, crews have started on the early pieces -- including an entry road and lights -- of the 160-acre North Myrtle Beach Park & Sports Complex, which plans to open in early 2014.

The city said Thursday it had already lined up events that would bring an estimated $13.5 million to the city during the complex’s first nine months of operation, more than the $10 million for the complex’s full first year that officials had originally predicted, North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling said.

“They are already ahead of the game,” he said.

Most of the events lined up for March 2014, when the complex opens, through November 2014 are collegiate training and tournaments including baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and others, Dowling said. He declined to name the events, saying the city had verbal contracts and didn’t want to tip off other cities that might try to lure the same event.

The city issued $15 million in general obligation bonds to buy the land and help pay for construction of the complex, and raised the property tax rate by six mills for eight years to generate revenue to pay for it.

“We need to grow the economy, especially the offseason,” Dowling said of why the city made the investment. “Sports tourism is a great way to fill in your off season.”

Sports events pumped about $12 million into North Myrtle Beach during the 2012 budget year, he said.

The new complex, which includes a 27-acre lake, will have six baseball-softball fields, up to eight soccer-football-lacrosse fields, an amphitheater, playgrounds, a dog park and picnic shelters. There also will be a Veterans Plaza with a gathering area and a multi-purpose trail. The complex is scheduled to be finished in February 2014. The National Collegiate Sports Invitational, which lasts three weeks and is expected to bring 60 softball and 24 baseball teams to the beach, will christen the complex as its first event scheduled for March 2014.

Myrtle Beach considers indoor facility

Myrtle Beach officials are kicking around the idea of spending $10 million to build a 90,000-square-foot indoor sports facility, which would include 10 hardwood basketball courts. In January, Myrtle Beach heard the results of a chamber-commissioned study on the sports facility needs in the city by the National Association of Sports Commissions, which estimated the new building would bring in about 55,000 new visitors and $25 million in direct spending each year. But it would run with a budget shortfall for the first four to five years.

Finding the money has been tricky, city budget director Mike Shelton told the City Council in January.

“It’s been a challenge to come up with a funding mechanism right now. The shortfall is a concern,” he said then. “We have to face some questions as we look to take on new things – given the revenues are not growing – what old things can we let go.”

The chamber said an indoor facility would help the beach lure even more sports events.

“An indoor sports arena located close to the [Myrtle Beach] Convention Center would be a tremendous asset by allowing us to compete for business that now meets and spends money in other destinations due to our lack of indoor sports facilities,” Dean said in an email. “It would help to stimulate the local economy immediately if constructed and would pay for itself in a relatively short period of time. One of our largest hindrances in growing the sports tourism sector in the Myrtle Beach area is the lack of such a facility.”

Enough demand?

Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach officials said there is enough demand to keep the new complex in North Myrtle Beach and, if it’s built, a indoor facility in Myrtle Beach busy.

“There’s a lot for everybody,” Dowling said.

Sports tourism is a growing business nationally, with a 10.5 percent growth in events since 2010, according to the National Association of Sports Commissions.

Supporters say the beach is a prime spot to host such events because it has enough hotel rooms to accommodate thousands of athletes and their fans and plenty of attractions and restaurants to keep them busy in between events.

An indoor volleyball tournament that takes place in January at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center has grown so large that it has to also use courts in nearby cities such as Florence and North Charleston.

Myrtle Beach hasn’t set a timetable for deciding whether to build the indoor facility, city spokesman Mark Kruea said, adding that there’s enough demand for it and the new outdoor complex in North Myrtle Beach.

“I don’t think that is a problem,” he said. “The more venues at this stage, the better.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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