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Open for Business: The Central Alabama Sports Commission

28 Feb, 2011

By: Juli Anne Patty

It's not polite to brag. If you haven't heard about Central Alabama, that's why. They all grew up with their grandmothers' and mothers' rules: be polite, say thank you, make people feel welcome, and absolutely never, ever brag. The first part, all that Southern hospitality, is how Central Alabama naturally developed a vibrant sports community: people just like coming here. But today, they're ready to take the next step. They're not going to brag, maybe, but they're getting bigger, getting organized and getting (politely) vocal about their success. The Central Alabama Sports Commission is open for business.

Two years ago, Todd Strange became mayor of the city of Montgomery, and he brought his experience in economic development with him.

"When I got into the job as mayor, it occurred to me, we've always been known as a pretty youth friendly sports town, but not necessarily a destination where people would come to participate in sports events, except in softball and tennis," says Strange. "We're in the heart and soul of this River Region. All of the cities have their own unique venues, but we weren't of one mind. So I got with the other mayors— former mayor Jim Byard, Jr., Al Kelley and Jerry Willis - a few other community leaders, and we started thinking, Why don't we pull together as communities with similar goals and do some economic development with sports in mind?"

So that's exactly what they did. The River Region Cities-Prattville, Millbrook, Montgomery and Wetumpka- with the leadership of the city of Montgomery, its Department of Leisure Services and its Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitor Bureau, began envisioning a sports commission to spearhead the initiative. But first they needed a leader.

"Dr. Jack Hawkins at Troy University, who is the vice chairman of the sports commission board, said, ‘There is no better person than Ken Blankenship,'" says Strange.

Dr. Blankenship, the former Athletics Director at Troy University, accepted the job, and the Central Alabama Sports Commission was ready to roll.

A Focus on Facilities
The River Region was already home to a number of renowned facilities, including the Montgomery Biscuits' home, the Riverwalk Stadium; the 128,000-square-foot Montgomery Convention Center; and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail's Capitol Hill Course, ranked by Zagat among the top 50 courses in America. But a preliminary survey told the new sports commission that facilities development would need to be the commission's first order of business.

"We have $25 million-plus in new sports facilities under construction or on the drawing board right now," says Blankenship. "You see communities spend that kind of money on professional sports facilities, but no one else is investing like this in amateur sports. It shows our passion and commitment for the industry."

Those new facilities include a $10 million total renovation of the almost 90-year old Cramton Bowl as well as a new 95,000-square-foot indoor sports facility adjacent to the stadium, a $12 million project. The 20,000-square-foot bottom floor will be level with Cramton Bowl and will house two football dressing rooms, two locker rooms and additional space for meetings or warm-up areas.

The main floor will be 72,000 square feet with a seating capacity of4,000. Scheduled to open in June 2012, the multi-purpose facility will accommodate volleyball, wrestling, basketball, indoor soccer and tennis, among other sports, and will be large enough to host events of practically any size- up to 15 volleyball courts, six basketball courts, five tennis courts or two indoor soccer fields at once.

The Sports Commission also just announced a new $2.1million project, a state-of-the-art soccer complex. "There was a time when we had a big presence in the sport," says Blankenship. "Our new soccer complex will put us back in the soccer business big time."

Central Alabama Sports Hit the Big Time
Already an experienced and beloved destination for many sports, Central Alabama has set itself an ambitious goal: to be the Sports Capital of Alabama.

"We've been hosting a number of national events, and we want to expand on that. We'll go after everything," says Wiley Steen, director of the Montgomery Department of Leisure Services. "And with the addition of our new facilities, we believe people will come, and they'll want to come back. There's just nothing better than being a guest in Central Alabama."

The region has a strong amateur volleyball scene, led by the Capital City Juniors, which organizes the Capital City Juniors Invitational Tournament, which draws 700 girls and 3,000 out-of-town spectators for the weekend.

"At the end of the day, I'm convinced that female athletics is the way to go," says Strange. "They bring everyone to town – parents, siblings, grandparents, friends. It got my attention during this volleyball event at the Convention Center. Only half the teams played at a time, and when I got there at shift change, I heard all the mothers and daughters talking about where they were going shopping. That's when it dawned on me: female athletics events are a very good thing for Montgomery."

Female athletics might be very good, but there's more to Central Alabama sports. In 2008 Golf World readers voted Prattville's Capitol Hill Golf Course, host of the annual Navistar LPGA Classic golf tournament, the number two public course in the country,while the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Grand National was ranked number one.

Founders of the Bassmaster and Buckmaster competitions were actually born in Central Alabama, and those sports continue to flourish, with the Bassmaster Elite Series held annually on the Alabama River in Montgomery and on Wetumpka's Lake Jordan, and a variety of hunting events in the region's famed Black Belt Region.

A national crappie fishing tournament brings over 300 boats each year to Millbrook. The BASS PRO SHOPS Crappie Masters Team Trail is a three-day fishing extravaganza on the Alabama River.

"We have incredible resources in Central Alabama, simply with the outdoors," says Blankenship.

A True Destination
As more families combine sports events with vacations, event owners have to work to find locations with more than just great facilities. Even in elite sports, the more appealing a destination is, the more successful a sports event will be.That's lucky for Central Alabama because as a destination, this region truly shines.

"So many things make Montgomery a great city," says Dawn Hathcock, vice president, Montgomery Convention and Visitor Bureau. "Our rich history, and in particular our civil rights tours and landmarks, are very appealing, and there are lots of options of things to do with your team or family in your off-the-field time: The Montgomery Zoo, some great shopping venues, a lot of wonderful museums, and there's downtown and the riverfront, as well."

Downtown development, including a new pedestrian-only entertainment district called The Alley, makes Montgomery especially appealing for sports groups. There are also hotels to fit the size and budget of any event, with 75 hotels and about 7,200rooms in Montgomery alone and approximately 90-100 hotels with about 10,000 rooms in the River Region.

The Secret's in the Sauce
"As a local business person, it's refreshing to see the level of public and private collaboration it's taken to get the Sports Commission off the ground," says Kenneth Coleman, chairman, Central Alabama Sports Commission. "That same team approach is what will make athletes and their families happy and keep them coming back."

Speaking of collaboration, Coleman's fellow board member agrees. "By creating a focus on sports in the River Region we will enhance the quality of life of area citizens; expose athletes, their families and supporters to a region rich in history and resources; and we will enhance the economic health of the region," says Dr. Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University. "It makes dollars and sense."

Mayor Strange has an equally optimistic outlook. "We've already had some big successes, and I believe we'll have even more as event owners see that we can put on a really good event. Besides, they get to come to a friendly, hospitable community where there are lots of things to see and do. And did I mention that the food's really good?"

Enough said.

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