By Jeff Keeling
Johnson City’s long and fruitful love affair with the NAIA Indoor National Track and Field Championships resumed in March after a five-year hiatus, but the prospect of another lengthy run as host city could be in doubt.
Coaches, athletes and fans came from across the country and again enjoyed the area’s hospitality and a well-run meet at East Tennessee State University’s mini dome March 4-6, Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Brenda Whitson says. City hoteliers, restaurants and other businesses esaw a direct economic impact conservatively estimated at $1.1 million, Whitson’s director of sports development, Gavin Andrews says.
The championships return March 2-4, 2017, and the CVB has submitted a bid for 2018-19. With Milligan Coach Chris Layne now bringing his connections in global track and field and the NAIA to bear, Whitson says next year’s meet will be even better.
Athletes, coaches and spectators will see visible signs of the dome’s iconic place in the annals of indoor track and field, including its previous run hosting the championships from 2001-2010 as well as great athletes that have competed there at every level. “We’re looking at a total branding effort for the event to make you feel like you’re really in some place special when you come into the dome,” Whitson says. “We’re going to celebrate its history and this event.”
If Johnson City sounds like a veritable supermodel in the world of NAIA indoor track, in many respects that’s an accurate assessment. And with Science Hill’s Kermit Tipton Stadium’s track infrastructure soon to have all the bells and whistles necessary, the CVB is set to go after the NAIA outdoor championships as well.
The problem is, the supermodel has one blemish, and it’s a major one – the condition of the dome’s track and its other track and field infrastructure, and to a lesser extent, the track’s configuration and length.
286 meters and a cloud of uncertainty
The CVB folks heard many positive comments in the wake of the championships, which they had wrested from Geneva, Ohio and its sparkling, newish facility, the Spire Center. “Even though they went to Geneva those five years, Geneva didn’t love ‘em like we love ‘em,” Whitson says, adding that the redevelopment in downtown Johnson City simply added to the appeal.
She, Andrews and Layne also heard, though, that the track itself was problematic. It’s about four decades old and its 286-meter length makes for odd splits on races 800 meters or longer. A follow up report from the National Association of Sports Commissions revealed significant concerns.
Andrews says the condition of the track, and the infield facilities, are the primary concern. Layne says the poor sight lines and odd length are issues as well.
Layne, who has said a back of the napkin estimate for a new, 200-meter track comes in around $600,000, ran at ETSU his first two years of college and his wife coaches there now. “I do care about this facility and this institution, and as a friend of the Chamber and a person who wants to see this community flourish, I see a lot of potential in this,” Layne says.
With Whitson and Andrews, he has talked to the NAIA’s event manager for track and field, Hannah Harmon, and their director of championship administration, Dustin Wilke. With the caveat that track improvements would be a must, they’ve broached the possibility of a longer-term relationship with NAIA as opposed to bidding for two-year championship stints. The outdoor championship could be part of the conversation as well.
“If we’re just trying to get this thing for two more years it doesn’t make any sense,” Layne says of an upgrage. “But we have the NAIA’s ear now to look at a long-term relationship, and it makes a lot of sense because the indoor championships is something we’ve proven we do a very good job with, because we did it for 10 years.”
Where’s the money?
The problem may be that caveat of track resurfacing. ETSU Athletic Director Richard Sander says the trio has approached the university. He says ETSU considers events like the NAIA meet have, “tremendous value because it does bring money from outside the community into the community.”
That being said, several budget priorities – ranging from football and basketball to indoor tennis, which could interfere with the possibility of a 200-meter track – take precedence, Sander says.
“In our priorities it’s somewhere down the list, but I would hope that because of the economic impact that it has for the region that there would be a way to figure out how to make that happen. I just don’t see ETSU funding that whole deal to be perfectly honest.”
In other words, if the CVB, a local government, private donors, Milligan or any combination thereof came forward with a viable plan to fund an overhaul, ETSU would be happy to investigate the possibility further.
“Clearly the surface is old, so it would be great to have a new modern surface in there,” Sander says. “I think it would do a lot of things. We could do other meets in there, so I think that would be great. Like anything, you’ve got to make choices.”
Layne believes if something can be worked out, everyone stands to gain.
“I certainly think we have a chance to win them over if we can look at the big picture here, which is working hard to make a couple minor changes that are going to give us potentially a decade of positive impact economically in this region.”