Several times a year, mostly in spring and summer, thousands of people pass Fort Mill on their way to soccer and softball tournaments in Rock Hill. There’s anecdotal evidence that some – prompted by the sponsor names they see on signs and players’ uniforms – make their way back north, although mostly to Baxter Village, we’re told, where they shop and dine like it’s their last day on Earth.
Rather than hope for some residual trickle down benefit from these events, our area should become another destination for them. And why not in Fort Mill? This is, after all, the town that created the S.C. Strawberry Festival, judged the best in the state.
Our area is ripe for sports tourism development.
Late last month, representatives from the Town of Fort Mill, the Fort Mill School District and York County met to publically discuss potential options for attracting sports tourism and ways the municipalities can share resources. Meeting and talking is a good first step, but it’s not worth much if there’s no follow through.
There’s much at stake – namely hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in potential local commerce.
Beth Balint, a Fort Mill resident and administrator for Discoveries Soccer, said she can’t imagine how Fort Mill could miss cashing in on sports tourism – if the infrastructure is in place. Discoveries, which has many local youths on its teams, is behind the mega soccer tournaments played at Manchester Meadows. Its most recent tournament attracted over 200 teams from across the country. That means thousands of players, family members, supporters and fans converging with open wallets, ready to spend money on lodging, food and shopping and entertainment.
It doesn’t always have to be Rock Hill that benefits.
“There are lots of teams coming from Charlotte and they are coming down [Interstate] 77 and passing Fort Mill,” Balint points out. “From a business standpoint, they’re certainly good customers.”
Those could be good customers for the Town of Fort Mill, the City of Tega Cay and unincorporated Fort Mill Township – if we had the infrastructure. That means tournament-quality playing fields and lodging and more entertainment options, like a movie theater and bowling alley.
The part of the township near the Carowinds exit does have a hotel and two motels, and they benefited from the last big Discoveries tournament, Balint said, when Rock Hill ran out of vacancies. In fact, there was so much demand, she said, that the Carowinds area rooms weren’t enough and some people who came to York County for the tournament ending up staying in Charlotte.
Twice in recent years Fort Mill seemed close to getting a hotel inside town limits. That would be a start, but what about one in Tega Cay, too? That would better position the city to be a player in sports tourism and collectively strengthen the hand of this area.
Even more important right now are the playing fields. At the recent joint meeting, officials seemed to agree we need more facilities and we need to find ways to share the ones that already exist. To take a quick inventory:
• The school district has a couple of quality fields
• The town invested about $1 million in upgrades to Doby’s Bridge Park to make the baseball field a multi-use facility and has a golf course
• The Complex on the Greenway, privately owned but under lease to the town, has a competition-sized indoor swimming pool and several playing fields
• Knights Stadium, owned by the county, will be without a team come fall
Tega Cay has fields, a golf course and tennis courts that just need spectator seating
• Fort Mill Township has space close to I-77 where more facilities can be developed
The Anne Springs Close Greenway is already used for equestrian and field trial events
• There are non-municipal golf courses in Springfield, Regent Park and Sun City
One of the main obstacles to creating a sports tourism destination on par with Rock Hill is the usual suspect – money. It was pointed out at the recent meeting that the Town of Fort Mill, for example,can’t afford to invest much more than it has in recreation without raising taxes.
We think it can’t afford not to.
Because we’ve become hyper-sensitive about asking the public to help pay for projects that go beyond the basics of providing public safety and clean water, good schools and decent roads, it almost seems unthinkable to consider even a modest tax hike. But why not look at it as a good investment? Sports tourism means a steady revenue stream. Across the river, it pumps millions annually into local businesses, the City of Rock Hill and York County.
Sports tourism is a proven winner and there’s plenty to go around. Rock Hill’s Cherry Park and Manchester Meadows aren’t enough for events in search of a venue. Someone in this region is going to create the next big sports destination.
Why not us?