“We’ve Got Space” is the city slogan that is appropriate to Huntsville’s history – indeed, even its future – in space exploration, as it serves as the home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Like most destinations, things were grounded considerably in 2020. But to continue the metaphor, the relaunch in 2021 has demonstrated the resilience in the Rocket City, as well as its facilities, teamwork, hospitality industry and nimbleness.
Huntsville enjoyed perhaps its most historic and impactful three-month span of sporting events as the cloud of the pandemic began to lift in late winter and early spring. The Southeastern Conference sought an alternate site for its 2021 Gymnastics Championships and chose Huntsville and its Von Braun Center, which sold out the event within four hours of tickets availability.
The SEC Gymnastics Championships were one of four college championships decided in Huntsville, with Gulf South Conference moving its soccer championships and the Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball championships moving to Huntsville. They joined the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, holding its beach volleyball championship at John Hunt Park for the second time.
The U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open, one of four events to help determine Team USA for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, took over the streets of Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park campus in the nation, for an exciting and inspiring weekend of competition, while across town the King Kat Tournament Trail saw anglers hauling in catfish of 70 pounds and larger.
For the 20th year, Huntsville was home to the Alabama High School Athletic Association soccer championships, but there were two long-awaited debuts as well. The Huntsville Championship PGA Korn Ferry Tour event brought in 150 pro golfers battling for their shot at the PGA TOUR. And May brought the long-awaited debut of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, at the new Toyota Field in nearby Madison.
That resume was accomplished because Huntsville’s got space – to stay, see and play. There are more than 7,000 hotel rooms in Madison County, a number that will increase by 1,200 by the end of 2022. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the most-visited attraction in Alabama (and its Space Camp counts 12 astronauts among its graduates).
As for space to play, there is a variety of superb venues, from soccer complexes (with 10 lighted grass fields and four lighted synthetic fields, a figure set to double by fall) to a world-class cross-country course that has been chosen as an NCAA championship site.
The Huntsville Aquatics Center has two 50-meter competition pools under the same roof and spectator seating for 1,400 and the Huntsville Ice Sports Center, with two sheets of ice, has undergone extensive renovation. Athletic Club Alabama and the Huntsville Tennis Center, less than a quarter-mile apart, have more than 50 courts and host the USTA Girls 16s Clay Court National Championships.
While athletes were busy all over Huntsville at so many different facilities, construction crews were active in another project that developers would phrase “adaptive reuse.” Joe Davis Stadium, a former Minor League Baseball park that has sat dormant since 2015, is undergoing a major transformation into a multi-use, synthetic-turfed field that will host high school football and professional soccer, boast two full-size soccer/lacrosse fields and offer capacity for more than 6,000. It’s expected to open in 2022 so it’s safe to say the countdown is now on. SDM