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Travel sports is an $8 billion-per-year industry. Its booming. Just follow the taillights of the hundreds of West Virginia families who load up each weekend and hit the road (traveling out of state) for soccer, baseball, football, softball and lacrosse tournaments.
What if West Virginia was home to a facility that could host travel-sports tournaments? A state-of-the-art facility our community could use that would also attract out-of-state kids and parents to Kanawha County. That is exactly what the Kanawha County Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission want to accomplish at Shawnee Park.
The proposal the county is reviewing is the redevelopment of a large portion of the 127-acre Shawnee Park site into a multi-use sports complex capable of hosting several large youth travel-sporting tournaments each year.
The new features at the park would include six collegiate-size turf soccer and lacrosse fields, four collegiate-size turf baseball/softball fields and several additional grass practice fields along the Kanawha River. The turf and grass fields could also be lined for additional sports, such as football.
The popular Shawnee Pool would stay, and other areas of the park would receive updates, in the form of new picnic shelters, large playgrounds for younger children and a 1-mile walking track.
Travel-sporting tournaments and sports tourism are proven to increase out-of-state spending for the host community. In 2012, tournaments held at the Tygart River Park Sports Complex in Duncan, South Carolina, generated a $23.3 million economic impact for Spartanburg and Greenville counties. Likewise, Traverse City, Michigan, a small city of only 15,000, realized a $3.4 million increase in spending from just two tournaments it hosted in 2012.
Now, consider that Kanawha County is within a one-day drive of two-thirds of the population of the United States. Indeed, we are less than a four-hour drive from Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina; and Pittsburgh. A redeveloped Shawnee Park could become a premiere destination for travel sports and an economic driver for the Kanawha Valley.
Fortunately, we dont have to go outside our state to witness the benefits of hosting a large youth sports tournament. Just take a visit to downtown Charleston in early March, when the state high school basketball tournament is at the Civic Center. The Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates the tournament produces $13 million in new spending. How do you think the capital citys hotels, restaurants and small-business owners feel about those extra dollars?
While the economic benefits of constructing a multi-use sports complex are welcome (and needed), the noneconomic benefits are just as significant. Participation in sports teaches teamwork, sportsmanship, discipline and determination. A multi-use sports complex at Shawnee Park could, each week, host hundreds of local kids and provide a variety of youth programs and activities.
The County Commission realizes some park patrons are upset and disappointed about the possibility of losing the golf course. Thats understandable. Shawnee Park is a wonderful course. Its easily accessible, abuts the Kanawha River and is unique due to its flat, walkable terrain.
The Shawnee course has been enjoyed by many in the community for years, and the commission does not take this decision lightly. However, the reality is, golf courses in the county, including Shawnee, are underutilized.
Compare the current use of Shawnee with the severe lack of space for local schools and youth athletic clubs, all of which continually struggle to find adequate fields to practice and play games.
Other opponents have voiced the opinion that the Shawnee project is too big an undertaking for Kanawha County and will not work here because we dont have enough to offer in the way of hotels, restaurants and infrastructure.
What an unfortunate mindset, as that is exactly the type of short-sighted, myopic mentality that continually leads to West Virginia finishing 50th.
Multi-use sports facilities have succeeded in other communities, large and small. Cities and counties that took a chance to build travel-sports facilities are now expanding, not shutting down. And we know hosting a travel tournament can work in Kanawha County, as evidenced by the basketball tournament.
A multi-use sports complex at Shawnee Park will work. It will be a success for Shawnee Park, for the communities of Institute and Dunbar, and for all of Kanawha County.
This is an opportunity to move Kanawha County forward. We shouldnt let it pass us by.
Ben Salango is a Kanawha County commissioner.
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