North Myrtle Beach works to bring events from across country to planned sports park

Shovels haven’t yet gone in the ground to build the North Myrtle Beach Park & Sports Complex, but officials already have been traveling the country recruiting events to play there.

At least 12 events, including a recurring one that plans to expand its sports training teams, have committed to playing on the fields of the complex when it opens in 2014.

The city’s new sports tourism division has attended at least four conferences and conventions in October and November to lure sports tourism events to the area: the TEAMS Conference in Michigan, the National Softball Association Convention in Kentucky, the American Softball Association Convention in Texas and the United States Specialty Sports Association convention in California.

The city’s sports tourism division also plans to attend the National Association of Sports Commissions Symposium conference in Kentucky in April.

Mike Mahaney, city manager, said attending the conferences costs the city money, but the expense is worth it if it translates to booking tournaments, especially in the offseason.

“What we’re trying to do, and quite frankly one of the reasons the California trip was so good was because it [targeted] a very large tournament on the shoulder season,” Mahaney said. “We don’t have much trouble on Fourth of July. It’s well worth [the travel expense] because we want the facilities to be utilized.”

There’s a lot of interest coming out of the conferences and conventions where officials plan to follow up conversations and begin relationships, city spokesman Pat Dowling said.

“We’re not going to take away major events from major cities,” Dowling said. “But when you have events like the Divas Half Marathon, they will come back. We hope [the planned park] will be booked most weeks and weekends prior to opening.”

The Divas Half Marathon came to North Myrtle Beach for the first time in May.

The city’s nearly 200-acre sports complex would host an expanded variety of high school, college and adult sports competitions, sports training, and other sports-related events; and also will be available for residents to use.

One of the recurring major events for the city’s sports tourism is the National Collegiate Sports Invitational softball spring training, which the city started hosting last year.

The three-week NCSI event - which includes competitions, daily team practices and games - takes place on the city’s fields at Central Park. The training will expand to the planned park and sports complex when it opens in 2014 with other sports, including lacrosse, soccer and golf.

“Having quality facilities is important to bringing these and other events back to North Myrtle Beach year after year,” Dowling said.

To get to the planned facilities, a four-lane road is being built from S.C. 90 into the park, which is part of more than 1,800 acres annexed into the city west of the Intracoastal Waterway near Robert Edge Parkway and S.C. 31. Plans call for years later to connect the road to Barefoot Resort, Dowling said.

City officials plan to have a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday at the park site for the new road.

The work to build the facilities at the $15 million park and sports complex will go out for bid in mid-December, city officials said. The first phase will include four multipurpose fields for soccer, lacrosse and football. The second phase will include four additional soccer fields.

“Hopefully we can get all eight fields into the first phase,” said John Bullard, North Myrtle Beach’s parks and recreation director. “We’re trying to make the fields as multipurpose as we can.”

The sports tourism events held at Central Park would be moved to the new facilities unless growth calls for both locations to be used for such events, city officials said.

Bullard said the demand continues to grow with soccer. The city only has one field now for soccer.

In addition to the fields, the park will also have a picnic area, walking trails, playground, water park, dog park, zipline, amphitheater and a 27-acre lake.

The sports complex, based on 20 events that could be held there, is expected to have a $14.2 million annual economic impact on the city and generate 192 jobs, according to a study completed by Coastal Carolina University. This is in addition to the $12 million direct annual impact sports tourism now has on North Myrtle Beach’s economy.

The planned complex is also motivating other development in the area. About 1,600 acres was recently annexed into the city and zoned commercial and residential. A planned shopping complex is also in the works for 600,000 square feet of commercial space near the sports complex. Developers are looking to bring in big box retail, other stores and restaurants.

With the potential growth, Dowling said the main focus with the park is putting heads in beds but to grow that level of tourism business gradually and responsibly.

“While the goal is to grow sports tourism, we’re not trying to grab all events,” Dowling said. “We’re looking at the niche for now. We want to develop long-term contacts and relationships so when we get something, we won’t have it for a year or two but for long-term.”