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Wednesday, 19 May 2010 13:19

Plans in hand, but money isn’t for Haywood park

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$6,342,044.

That’s approximately how much money needs to be raised before Haywood County residents can expect to see a recreation park built in Jonathan Creek.

With the recession retaining its stranglehold on the nation, county commissioners aren’t contributing a single cent to the park in this year’s proposed budget.

The project, as many already know, is years away from becoming a reality, even though the park’s design is nearly finalized.

Having a design in hand undoubtedly gives the county a leg up in securing state recreation grants, which mostly fund projects that are already underway.

But there’s one other source that could be of assistance to the many softball and baseball players itching to play at the park’s proposed four new fields.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority — which collects lodging tax and helps promote tourism in the county — already contributed $10,000 of the $15,000 that went into the Jonathan Creek Park design process.

Sports tournaments are known to bring out-of-town visitors not only out to the fields during the day, but also to hotels and motels after the game is through.

“Whenever you have kids in any type of competition, you have parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters,” said Marion Hamel, TDA’s vice-chair for the Town of Maggie Valley. “I think it would just be a boon to the whole area.”

More “heads in beds” means more money for the TDA, which in turn leads to a higher advertising budget to then bring even more tourists to town. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that gets a boost from new facilities that draw tourists.

The idea is not new. TDAs or similar associations across the Southeast have utilized their funds to do more than just place ads in newspapers and magazines. On the east coast, they’ve funded boat docks. In Greensboro, they helped the International Civil Rights Center & Museum come to fruition.

The Buncombe County TDA has gone so far as to devote one percent of its lodging tax solely to brick and mortar projects that generate additional room nights.

Its beneficiaries throughout the years are many, including the Bob Moog Museum, concert venue The Orange Peel, Pack Square Park, the Buncombe County Civil War Trails, and the Bonsai Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum, to name a few.

Small in the game

For now, Haywood’s TDA is unsure that it’ll play a major role in funding the Jonathan Creek park.

“The problem is we’re going through the budget process right now, and it’s looking very, very, very slim,” Hamel said. “I would be very hesitant to say yes. If we had the funds, yes, I would support that.”

Alice Aumen, who serves as chair of the TDA, said the organization has already made unprecedented cuts due to the triple whammy of the recession, the rockslide that shut down Interstate 40 for six months and 2009’s rainy summer.

The agency’s year to date revenue is down by 8 percent, and the TDA held a special meeting last week to determine how to possibly fulfill the budget they’ve passed for this year with such a shortfall.

Members voted to close doors at the Balsam visitor center three days a week and the Canton Visitor Center altogether until the end of June, when the new 2010-2011 fiscal year begins.

“It’s never happened before,” Aumen said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Aumen would not comment on whether the TDA would fund construction on the Jonathan Creek Park, adding though that there had been no discussion yet on the subject.

According to Aumen, that decision would depend on how members see TDA’s role in the community.

“Some people perceive that TDA is really a promotional agency, as opposed to getting into product development,” said Aumen.

Ken Stahl, chair of the TDA’s finance committee, said the agency must above all determine how to maximize the impact of each tourism dollar it receives.

The TDA decided to help jumpstart the Jonathan Creek Park project with funding because of its potential to bring overnight visitors to the area for years to come, Stahl said.

“Maybe it was important for us to contribute to the front-end of this thing,” Stahl said. “Our thoughts were to help this project along, thinking it would help in the long run.”

Though the Haywood TDA has widened its scope, it hasn’t totally lost focus on its core principles of marketing and promoting the area.

Other than the sports complex in Jonathan Creek, the only other capital project the TDA has contributed to is the Maggie Valley’s festival grounds, which received $115,000 for lighting and other electrical needs.

According to the American Planning Association, however, sports tournaments generally create a greater economic impact for local communities than special events and festivals. Most non-major festivals overwhelmingly attract locals rather than faraway visitors.

Steve Fritts, vice president of Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon — the design firm leading the project at Jonathan Creek — is currently working on a project in Indiana, where the convention and visitors bureau is funding 100 percent of an $18 million sports complex.

Chattanooga, Tenn., spent $10 million on a new eight-field softball complex that’s estimated to bring an economic impact of $25.9 million between 2008 and 2013, according to Fritts. From 1992 to 2006, the city documented more than $50 million in economic impact from softball tournaments alone, Fritts said.

Meanwhile, Rock Hill, S.C., reports that holding about 35 sports tournaments each year adds $5 million of direct economic impact to its room tax each year. That tax money had paid most of the bills on a new soccer field and tennis center in town.

Though the impacts can be enormous in certain cases, Haywood County still faces a crunch in figuring out how to fund its own $6.3 million sports complex. The answer can’t fully lie with the TDA.

“There is obviously a limit to how much we can do that we can do,” Stahl said. “This is really a county project. They’re the ones that bought the property, and they’re the ones that are going to develop it.”

Haywood’s TDA typically has a total budget of $1 million, while similar organizations in Asheville and Cherokee can spend $1.5 million or more out of their multimillion dollar budget each year.

“We’re small in the game of TDAs,” Stahl said.

Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said that with the county’s own tight budget, the recreation department will have to start applying for state grants, hoping for the best.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re not in a financial position to move forward with the construction,” said Kirkpatrick.

On the bright side, having a design in place will still move Haywood up on the queue for receiving state funding.

“Without a site master plan, you can’t get anywhere,” said Claire Carleton, recreation director for the county. “This is the most important initial step.”

The park’s many offerings

After receiving ample input from vocal citizens, the Haywood County Recreation Board has selected a master site plan for the Jonathan Creek sports complex.

The park will include a 225-foot baseball field, a 200-foot baseball field, and two 300-foot softball/baseball fields that would accommodate men’s softball tournaments, as well as a two-story scorer’s tower with concessions and restrooms.

The plan also calls for an Astroturf multipurpose field, a small soccer field, tennis courts, playground, horseshoe pits, picnic sites, batting cage, a handicapped fishing pier, and a walking trail alongside the creek.

The plan awaits final approval by the Haywood County commissioners.

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