By Gary Gray
Eleven Johnson City officials wedged into a passenger van last week and visited two world-class sports facilities in South Carolina to gather information and apply it to the possible creation of a new, tournament- and tourism-centric venture in Johnson City.
The demand for local softball and soccer league space has been on the rise for years, and the nearly 1,000 kids signed up through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for spring league soccer alone indicate. Also, reeling in major tournaments that increase tourism, spending and tax revenue in the area is no pipe dream. Organizations are knocking on the door.
Johnson City undoubtedly will require private-public partnership to get the job done, and a tax increase is part of the conversation. A combination of the latter is how the South Carolina mega-complexes emerged. Johnson City commissioners, the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and Parks and Recreation officials now know they must seek investment from corporate sponsors.
The group toured the pristine 13-field Tyger River Park in Reidville, S.C., and the 16-field MESA Soccer Complex in Greer, S.C. on Thursday, April 13, to learn what has made these facilities successful in meeting the needs of their communities.
“We’ve got to figure out what we want and go hunting,” Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said as she exited the van in front of the Municipal & Safety Building.
In May of last year, National Association of Sports Commissions Executive Director Donald Schumacher told commissioners that adding 10, 50-team softball tournaments could bring in $6 million a year if at least four new fields are constructed, according to a sports facilities study.
“The ASA (Amateur Softball Association) has a very high opinion of you,” Schumacher told commissioners at the time about the city’s existing and potentially new and upgrades facilities, as well as the desire to visit Johnson City.
A national softball tournament last year drew 80 teams to Winged Deer Park and several other city parks, and a Chamber-sponsored ASA tournament featuring women 18 and under followed. New and renovated diamond-shaped and rectangular fields are the hottest topic, and their locations will come following development of a master plan. But there also has been a surge in interest for soccer, lacrosse, rugby, field hockey and football — thus the need for more rectangular fields.
In early June, city commissioners allocated $400,000 to make improvements to existing parks and facilities, with $100,000 of that earmarked for the development of a master plan that would include an estimated $15 million for a new complex and/or improvements.
“Obviously, there’s a need,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “We need to increase the number of both diamond and rectangle fields. The next steps will be to determine if we want to do diamond, rectangular or both. We need to determine how we might do a public-private partnership, where we might do it and how we expand to fit our needs.”
Peterson said the city could issue up to $15 million in bonds for the improvements, though perhaps in phases rather than at one time. Still, that may not be the optimum funding method.
“They key is to host larger tournaments from organizations outside our community,” said Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin. “If you don’t do that, you don’t realize the additional revenues. You’re never going to bring in enough sales tax revenue.”
Van Brocklin said some options are more palatable to taxpayers than others.
“Obviously, some options make citizens a little tense,” he said. “The city can use future bond roll off to pay for this or look at some form of tax increase. Our hotel-motel tax revenue is pretty well maxed out. We also could try to increase our local option sales tax rate by .25 cents. But that would require a referendum, and people are not likely to go to the polls to raise their taxes.”
Use of the 55-acre Keefauver Farm remains in limbo, while federal agencies study it as a possible replacement for the defunct Optimist Park. The “conversion” needs government approval since federal funds that helped fund Optimist Park came with the caveat that its replacement be a suitable recreation site.
Land near Winged Deer Park was considered nearly two years ago, but steep terrain and high grading costs discouraged commissioners. The city also owns 30 acres off West Market Street adjacent to the Innovation Lab. It was hoped commercial development would have taken hold there, and Peterson has said there is interest from an overseas investor to potentially build a U.S. Olympic training center on the site. Those closest to that deal have held their cards very close to their respective vests.
Meanwhile, Washington County commissioners voted to shave the cost of an estimated $3 million athletic facility from the total price of the new Boones Creek K-8. County Mayor Dan Eldridge has said he was confident the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and Johnson City have interest in promoting and investing in the facility.
Space is limited at that site, and there has been no serious discussion on the city side about partnering with the county on the project.
“I would like to put out an RFP (request for proposals) in which real estate brokers would come to us with possible locations,” Commissioner Joe Wise said during the jaunt.
Tyger River Park is a sight to behold. It sprawls across 150 acres, with 50 acres of that dedicated to diamond-shaped ball fields. It offers extremely well-manicured grounds, a large clubhouse, observation tower, meeting rooms, splash pads, playgrounds, picnic areas, batting cages, pavilions and assorted goodies for the general public. It also includes solar- and wind-powered panels, a 1,000-seat stadium, a 1.25-mile walking trail and a fitness trail.
The mega-park’s initial cost was $18 million. Spartanburg County issued bonds for the project, and a combination of sales tax and hospitality tax (hotels, restaurants, etc.) foots the bill.
“I’m impressed by the features and how it all ties together,” said Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl while walking from field to field. “It’s not just about the ball fields, but the family-friendly feel. Getting the tournaments is great, but having space available for the general public is very important.”
Commissioners and others asked a lot of questions, including details about drainage, types of grass, hours and availability. Two commissioners spotted the phone number of a company that provided the awning stretched above softball field seating and jotted it down on a notepad, keeping in spirit with the fact-finding mission.
The MESA Soccer Complex incorporates 85 acres, and can hold up to 10,000 people on the grounds in a single day. It includes restrooms, a playground and concessions. It began with private ownership and the Carolina Elite Soccer Academy. Greenville County partnered with the group in 2006 when it purchased adjacent land for $8 million. Its uses include long-drive golf and Frisbee tournaments.
The county raised its food and beverage sale tax rate by two percent to help pay for the capital improvement.
It’s worth noting that both facilities pull in millions of dollars annually, but neither makes a direct profit. However, the counties have benefited overall from the influx of tourism dollars, according to Spartanburg and Greenville County representatives.
“We need to address the need for soccer fields, as well as diamond fields,” said Tim Zajonc, Johnson City Regional Planning Commission chair and Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member. “It would be nice to see Johnson City back in the hunt for tournaments, and it would obviously help tourism. This has been a constant discussion for years. But there is what you would like to do and what you can do.”
Brock, Peterson, Van Brocklin, Wise, Stahl and Zajonc, as well as Commissioner Todd Fowler, Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis, Parks and Recreation Athletic Manager David Carmichael, Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Brenda Whitson and Gavin Andrews with the CVB Division of Sports Development made the trip.