NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — Driving his SUV by what will become 550 parking spaces for the new North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex, the city’s John Bullard doesn’t hesitate when asked if he thinks the city will ever bring enough groups to fill all those spaces at the same time.
“I know we will,” he said confidently. “We’ve already got ‘em booked.”
Officials aren’t sure which is coming along better, construction on the 160-acre complex or the bookings pace of teams wanting to compete in events there once it opens in March.
Roughly 46 events with a combined 19,470 participants have signed up to compete at the complex next year and are expected to pump $14 million into North Myrtle Beach’s economy in 2014. That’s already much higher than the $10.5 million economic impact during the complex’s first year that Coastal Carolina University estimated before construction began.
And more events are in the works.
“We have multiple events asking for the same days, same week,” said Matt Gibbons, the city’s superintendent of sports tourism and athletics. “It’s a good problem to have. … It’s going to be jam packed next year.”
The complex, which includes a 27-acre lake, will have six baseball-softball fields, up to eight soccer-football-lacrosse fields, an amphitheater, playgrounds, a one-acre dog park and picnic shelters. There also will be a Veterans Plaza with a gathering area and a multi-purpose trail. The complex is off Robert Edge Parkway, just off S.C. 31.
While officials tout the complex’s potential to boost sports tourism, they also plug the park – which will be the city’s largest by far – as a go-to spot for locals to exercise, have family picnics in the meadow and get some exercise for their dogs, too, in the dog park.
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.
While Gibbons continues to recruit events, crews are buzzing around the sprawling complex putting up fences, laying sidewalks and installing water pipes. Lights around the sports fields are up, some grass is coming in on the soccer-lacrosse fields, buildings that will house restrooms and concessions have been framed and concrete pads have been poured for picnic shelters.
“You can really see where everything is going to be,” Gibbons said. “It looks really good.”
The project is on budget and on schedule to be finished in February, with the first event set for March. 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 in March. The city has hosted that event the past few years at its existing facilities.
Officials say the complex is the city’s ticket to grow sports tourism, which they say will bring business to the beach especially during the slower spring and fall seasons. The North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, which is working with the city on accommodations for the sports groups, has created a new job – sports and group sales manager – to put more emphasis on sports tourism. The chamber is still accepting applications, with nearly 100 applying so far.
And later this month, the chamber is meeting with lodging providers in the city to talk about the opportunities the complex is creating.
“It is going to be a huge boost,” said Marc Jordan, president of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. “It is going to be the times [spring and fall] when we need to boost our tourism.”
The city already has the hotel rooms, amenities and entertainment options to accommodate teams, so “It just makes a lot of sense,” said Bullard, director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department. “Sports tourism is the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry.”
Bullard already has ideas for the complex’s next phase, including adding paddle boats or other recreational activities on the lake and more walking trails. The city also still wants to partner with a private company to build a water park, miniature golf course or other amenity on seven acres within the park. The initial plan for a water park to be built by a private company there fell through.
But for now, officials are focused on getting the complex up and running and recruiting the events to keep it hopping.
“It’s go time,” Gibbons said. “We are full speed ahead.”
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.