NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — With less than a month before 60 women’s collegiate softball teams arrive in North Myrtle Beach for the inaugural event in the city’s new Park and Sports Complex, crews are concentrated around the six ballfields to have them game ready in time for the March 3 opening of the Fastpitch Dreams Spring Classic.
The event will bring about 2,500 ball players and coaches and perhaps as many family members onto the 160-acre complex tucked in one-quarter of the intersection of Robert Edge Parkway and S.C. 31.
Each of the attendees, whether players or watchers, will be in town five or six nights and will be an immediate picture of a part of the complex’s potential.
And while the money they will spend on rooms, meals and other things are crucial to the success of the more than $15 million the city has spent to develop the complex, the real impact will go well beyond.
For one thing, said John Bullard, the city’s parks and recreation director, the presence of the six ballfields and eight soccer/lacrosse fields will give North Myrtle Beach youngsters a greatly expanded chance to play in the city’s sports leagues, and residents of the city and elsewhere a place to go for a picnic, to fish or to listen to an outdoor concert, among other things.
Bullard said he told City Council members that they could expect 45 events to book space at the complex during its first year of operation. But thanks in large part to the work of Matt Gibbons, the city’s new sports tourism director, there is a nearly full slate of 69 events for 2014 and some of them already want to reserve space for a return visit in 2015.
“We know if we can bring people here for the first time and they have a good experience,” Bullard said, “they’ll come back for sports.”
But it’s also likely that they’ll come back at other times as well, and even that some will become permanent residents.
It’s hard to appreciate the expanse or diversity of the complex even driving along S.C. 31, which likely allows the best road view. The short side of it is along Robert Edge Parkway, and even that is set back from the road.
And an internal driving tour of the park makes it seem deceptively small from the combination of the site plan and areas left in a natural forest state that keeps the expansive meadow area visually separate from the soccer fields, which are visually separate from the pond, which is visually separate from the ballfields.
Picnic areas, bathrooms and concession stands are scattered throughout the complex and those clustered in the center of the ballfields gives the area the feeling of a small town park as much as a sports complex.
Gibbons said the city initially marketed the complex by attending trade shows of event organizers where those with goods to sell got to meet a lot of potential buyers in a series of brief meetings in which longer meetings were arranged among interested parties.
“You can meet with 30, 40, 50 people in a day,” Gibbons said.
“It’s sort of like speed dating,” Bullard described the process.
The city sent information packets to a number of prospects, and Gibbons said he finally realized how much interest there was when the first deadline to reserve space hit in May 2013.
Bullard said the city wants to make the process as effortless as possible for event organizers, so those who reserve space at the complex are introduced to the sports tourism director at the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce to secure local lodging and help them in other ways. Events are required to use local rooms, unless the event is being held in conjunction with Myrtle Beach, for instance. There are no lodging requirements for them.
The complex will be the stage for one international event in its inaugural year – the World Cup for the International Quidditch Association – which will bring people from Australia and Wales.
There are also several dates reserved for the World Futbol Tour as well as five days for the Dixie Softball World Series.
But officials are very mindful that the complex is a city facility and it is city tax money that has made it possible. 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.
Field dates for North Myrtle Beach recreation league teams are put on the calendar before any outside events are scheduled. The lake will have land borne cables for water skiing and jet pac rides. Outdoor concerts that are free to the public are being scheduled in the 2,000-seat amphitheater. There will be interpretive trails through a 12-acre Carolina Bay on the site and around the lake. A multipurpose trail already goes from the park to Robert Edge Parkway and the hope is that it may one day go all the way into the main part of town.
And there are two dog parks, one for large dogs and one for small dogs – the first dog parks in the city.
Bullard said that city-owned sporting facilities don’t normally pay for themselves, but the park and sports complex isn’t a normal kind of city park. The hope is that it will be self-supporting.
The city will operate all the park’s concession stands where a high return could be expected from the sale of soft drinks, chips, burgers, hot dogs and other things. Additionally, Bullard said that once the facility is operational, the city will try to market it for weddings, family reunions and other events that draw mainly a local crowd.
But the heavy hitters, events such as the fastpitch tournament, are where the big money will be.
Organizers will pay, for instance, $120 per hour for each of the eight soccer/lacrosse fields.
“That adds up,” Bullard said.
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.