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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)


Goose Creek has a new 9,000-square-foot gymnastics center.

Five ballfields of varying sizes form the 20-acre Shipyard Park overlooking the Wando River off S.C. Highway 41 in the East Cooper area.

North Charleston is about to break ground on the Lowcountry's first aquatics center with an Olympic-size pool. And a Charleston-area businessman plans a world-class indoor sports facility which will be attached to the Citadel Mall.

Charleston is already a top tourist destination, so it only makes sense that families would want to travel here to watch their children compete in top-notch facilities, officials said.

"I think it's great that we are getting these facilities," said Callie Jones of West Ashley, mom to Chris, 16, Connor, 13, and Chloe, 10.

"We have traveled all over South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia in the last decade for soccer, baseball, swimming. It would be great to be able to have those things right in our own backyard for a change and not have to pack up the minivan every weekend."

While Charleston is making strides toward being a destination for youth athletic events, it's still behind meccas like Myrtle Beach and Rock Hill.

"We're not even close to what other areas have," said Kathleen Cartland, executive director of the Charleston Area Sports Commission. "Just in the state of South Carolina, we constantly lose out on tournaments to other cities."

Given the number of local competitions, that might seem hard to believe. Each week brings six to eight sporting events throughout the area that draw 100 to 300 participants.

But that's just small potatoes. Many tournament organizers are looking for venues much bigger than Charleston has to offer, Cartland said.

"The organizers want a minimum number of fields, like 12, in one location," she said. "We don't come close to that, so we continue to miss out, simply because a lot of areas have built larger complexes."

"Sports-cation" or "tourna-cation," traveling for a child's competition, has become its own industry.

In 2016, families spent more than $10 billion on travel related to youth sports, according to HBO's "Real Sports."

"We've probably spent thousands on hotels and food," Jones said. "There's pressure to do what the other families do. We all stay in the same hotels. After sitting together watching our kids compete all day, we go out to dinner together. You don't want your child to be the one that's not there, so you go, too."

Last year, during a baseball tournament at North Charleston's three-field Westcott Park, "I remember that you couldn't get into restaurants on Dorchester Road that weekend without waiting," said North Charleston City Councilman Ron Brinson. "So I know these events bring people to town."

The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a 220-acre venue, opened in 1997. It's on the grounds of Disney World, allowing families to stay, eat and visit a theme park right where their children are participating in a meet or tournament.

The largest facility in the country, Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., is a 400-acre mixed-use sports facility that in 2016 attracted 1.2 million visitors, resulting in $145 million in tourism spending.

In South Carolina, Rock Hill was one of the state's first cities to jump into the sports tourism world when it opened a 68-acre baseball and softball complex called Cherry Park in 1985. It has continued since to put an emphasis on youth sports.

More recently, Myrtle Beach and Florence have joined the fray with facilities of their own.

And now, the Lowcountry, where several new facilities are opening and others are planned.

With the area's only gym that has the capacity to seat a large crowd, Goose Creek hopes to draw competitions to the area, said gymnastics coordinator Stacey Croston.

North Charleston is about to start construction on the $25 million aquatics center and a $14 million gymnasium on Remount Road that will be able to host basketball and volleyball tournaments.

The main thrust of the aquatics center will be swim lessons and practice space for area teams - "the kids come first," said Brinson - but in approving the project, officials also considered the other benefits to building the facility.

"The possibility of attracting regional and national events that want to utilize a world-class facility was a factor," Brinson said.

With all the accolades Charleston has received as a top travel destination, organizers and participants want to come here, Cartland said.

"The parents want more entertainment and attractions," she said. "We've even had some say they're tired of going to Myrtle Beach. We're definitely able to pick up tournaments because we're a top tourist destination."

Bringing in more events helps offset operating costs for facilities that are generally not money-makers.

"It's just like the convention center or coliseum," Cartland said. "It's really hard for them to make money, but everybody around it really benefits."

North Charleston and Goose Creek used accommodations taxes to help finance their facilities.

"It's kind of a circular strategy," Brinson said. People who come to stay in the area pay accommodations and hospitality taxes that are used to help build and maintain the facilities they are coming to visit.

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June 11, 2018


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