COLUMBIA — More than 90 youth baseball teams poured into northeast Columbia in April to participate in a travel tournament affiliated with Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
The visitors spent about $275,000 while here competing at Kelly Mill Sports Complex in Elgin. Richland County Council chairman Paul Livingston attended and offered remarks to the participants; the event was by all accounts successful and well received.
“That’s a four-field complex,” said Scott Powers, director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, which markets the area’s sports offerings to visitors. “Imagine what we could do with an eight-, 10-, 12-field complex.”
Richland County officials have imagined what such a space would mean for the area and are beginning to explore where such a layout would be built and most importantly, how it would be funded. The county has received separate requests from private groups via Livingston for millions of dollars in county hospitality tax money raised from restaurant meals and grocery purchases to help build similar features.
The public Richland County Recreation Commission, seeking a new direction with agency head Lakita Watson, has determined such an offering is needed and is moving forward with seeking public input and partners to get it done.
A Charlotte-based consultant hired by the commission has already confirmed that such a complex would be successful, Watson said. Next steps will be to talk with county officials about potential locations, ways to pay for the work and possible private partners.
County decision-makers have already received requests from a private organization for $4 million in public money for a volleyball complex and another from the nonprofit S.C. Kings Foundation for $9.5 million in tax dollars to help build a sports complex in Irmo.
County Council, instead of considering the individual requests, decided to consider the idea of a travel sports complex more generally, beginning with a committee.
Livingston said some on council has always felt like the county’s hospitality tax funds could best be used toward a few grand projects instead of dozens of smaller grants to organizations whether the effect is perceived to be less felt.
The county spent millions to renovate Columbia’s Township Auditorium this way. And while the improvements helped draw big-name acts such as John Legend and Avett Brothers to the concert venue, the county unsuccessfully attempted to use hospitality funds for a destination farmers market off of Shop Road and a water park on county property on Farrow Road.
He said he doesn’t know the direction the discussion will take with council on a sports complex “but it at least warrants a discussion.”
“I support getting back into that,” Livingston said. “I support trying to get a really nice destination site for our community.”
Watson envisions a complex with indoor and outdoor facilities that can accommodate numerous tournament competitions at the same time. The site should be in a visible area with the infrastructure in place to easily get people in and out, and preferably on land the county already owns to avoid the additional cost.
Asked about the prospect of the sports layout setting off a fight for which council member can secure the complex for their district, Watson said a list of objective criteria should help determine the ultimate location and avoid jurisdictional spats.
The necessary space is much larger in scale than a typical recreational park tailored to a specific community, Powers said. A baseline project could easily cost $25 million to $30 million, he said.
The payoff could come in the form of visitors who come from all over the country to compete in tournaments, spending money in hotels and restaurants and driving demand for new hotels around the facility. Travel sports was a $45 billion industry in 2019, Powers said.
Columbia, once fairly competitive with other regional destinations, has fallen behind in recent years as travel sports have boomed, Powers said.
The capital city could learn from similar cities like Rock Hill that don’t have the beach or mountains to attract visitors but have made sports tournaments the draw. The city of Rock Hill, south of Charlotte in York County, has Cherry Park and Manchester Meadows soccer complex — amenities that bring in millions in economic impact.
The Braves tournament at Kelly Mill had to spill over to two fields overseen by the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission. A 60-team travel basketball tournament in March brought in $400,000 in outside spending but occupied five Richland County Recreation Commission gymnasiums throughout the area.
“It’s all come back to whose got the money? Where is the money going to come from?” Powers said. “I guess that’s the biggest nut we have never been able to crack, is how are we going to fund that?”
And while he has professed the area’s need for such a sports complex for more than 15 years, Powers said he’s not suggesting elected officials open the public’s wallet and that the best option will likely include significant support from the private side.
The county recreation commission’s ability to borrow money for big projects has been curtailed for the next 10 years because of previous financial choices that tied up the agency’s debt.
The commission is unique in that its board is appointed by the state but receives its operational funding and limited money for park improvements from the county, Watson explained during a public meeting in Blythewood on June 3. Money will also be needed to eventually improve or replace aging county pools like Trenholm Park — a recent survey showed county residents would like an indoor pool, and such a facility is part of Watson’s long-range plan.
That’s all to say the agency can’t bear the cost of a state-of-the-art sports complex on its own.
“But are there other ways? Yes sir,” Watson said. “We just need to sit down and figure out what they look like.”