Winning With a ‘Very Valdosta’ Sports Culture
17 Jul, 2018By: Peter Francesconi
In the 1980s, Valdosta, Georgia, surged in prosperity and, with the renewed economic impact came a renewed downtown area, business relationships and investment in the future.
This spirit of renewal and expansion continues today and is seen particularly in a commitment to quality sports venues throughout this city of about 57,000 residents located on the southern border of Georgia.
“Our community really sees the importance of sports tourism,” said George Page, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Parks & Recreation Authority. “We have a great partnership with the Valdosta tourism authority in helping to bring sports tournaments and events to our community. We take pride in having visitors come to Valdosta.”
The desire to offer top sports facilities has, in recent years, led to continued expansion. “We have tremendous sports facilities here but we’ve also been investing in growth,” said Chris Hamilton, president and CEO of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center & Tourism Authority.
Among sports facilities receiving added investment and attention are baseball/softball diamonds, multi-purpose fields and tennis courts. In addition, said Hamilton, who joined Valdosta tourism in February, the James H. Rainwater Conference Center, which in the past hasn’t been used for sports events, will now be looking to host appropriate sports and activities.
“We have the space at the Conference Center and can accommodate tournaments,” he said.
Page said that close to $14 million has been earmarked for facility improvements and new construction. Some of those funds come from a special-purpose local-option sales tax (called “SPLOST”) of one percent in Lowndes County, indicating that Valdosta residents also see the importance of having outstanding sports facilities that they, too, can enjoy.
Baseball and Softball
Valdosta currently has 19 baseball/softball diamonds at parks and rec facilities throughout the area. The largest is the 250-acre Freedom Park, which currently features eight diamonds (five in one pod, three in another), along with a concession stand, restrooms and a covered playground. The facility hosts dozens of baseball and softball tournaments each year.
But in February 2019, the number of tournament-ready fields at Freedom Park will increase. A pod of five new fields is under construction now—four will have 250-foot fences, and the fifth will be a 200-foot Miracle Field, a custom-designed diamond with a cushioned, rubberized turf for children and adults with special needs. A public-private partnership between the VLPRA and the Miracle League of Valdosta worked to make the field a reality.
“In addition, we’ll have a $600,000 building for offices and concessions,” Page said. “We’re expanding our concession and retail area because we want the facility to be a training ground for children and adults with special needs. We’re really making it a truly inclusive facility for everyone.”
The renovations at Freedom Park also include a new $250,000 “Boundless Playground” with a rubberized, poured-in-place surface, where children of all ages, with and without disabilities, can play together.
“There will be plenty of play structures, slides, swings, some sensory pieces of equipment,” Page said. “There will be quite a few different options in this new playground, all connected to the baseball/softball facilities. In addition, Freedom Park will have a new, fully accessible picnic pavilion area so it’s all very family-friendly.”
Another feature that is appreciated by players, coaches and families is the abundance of shade at the Valdosta ball fields, said Page.
“We have a lot of trees around the facility, so it’s easy for spectators and players to escape the sun, which makes for a very comfortable tournament or event,” he said.
Other baseball/softball venues in the area include the Vallotton Youth Complex, which has seven fields, and is about four miles from Freedom Park. In addition, the South Lowndes Recreation Complex has two adult and two youth diamonds, a concession stand with covered dining area, restrooms, two large picnic shelters, a full-size playground and more.
“As 2019 begins, we’ll have 23 championship tournament diamonds in our portfolio,” Page said. “We’ve already been hosting national and regional youth, adult and senior tournaments and we’re looking forward to servicing even more event organizers.”
When it comes to field sports, Valdosta not only has the venues organizers need but, by next summer, will have additional championship fields available for sports such as soccer, lacrosse, football, field hockey and more.
The city recently acquired 65 acres adjoining North Lowndes Park, which currently has one athletic field, along with a skate park and a playground.
“We’ll be adding a complex with eight natural-grass multi-purpose fields,” Page said.
The new construction will include a concession stand, restrooms and maintenance building and is scheduled to be completed in May 2019.
Currently, tournaments and events take place on the multi-purpose fields available in parks and schools throughout the county, in addition to the excellent facilities at Valdosta State University.
“We certainly see this as a growing market,” he said. “All told, with the nine fields that will be at North Lowndes Park, we’ll have at least 20 multi-purpose fields in our community available for events. And this will be just the first phase. Later plans call for adding five baseball fields, too.”
Expanded Tennis Center
McKey Park is in the middle of Valdosta and is home to the popular Harry B. Anderson Tennis Center, which features 12 hard courts. By early September, the facility will have six additional courts, along with stadium seating that is above the new courts so spectators will have a view of the action on all six courts.
“We’re already hosting statewide and regional tennis tournaments, including USTA events,” Page said. “With these six additional courts, we can have even larger events here.”
Some of the courts feature ‘blended’ lines, creating smaller 36-foot and 60-foot courts for youth tennis. The VLPRA’s tennis division includes a full-time director and assistant pro.
With 18 courts at the H.B.A. Tennis Center plus 10 at local high schools and others in the parks, “We’ll have about 50 courts all within a four-mile radius. Plus, there are courts available at Valdosta State University,” Page said. “We’ll be a major player in attracting big tournaments.”
A Sports-Minded Culture
“One of the great things about our sports facilities and the expansion we’re seeing is that they’re also available for local residents, too,” Hamilton said. “We’ve built a culture of sports and recreation here that is ‘Very Valdosta.’ And it’s important when it comes to attracting outside events and tournaments. We have a population that knows the importance sports plays with adults and youngsters.”
The support from the community also shows itself in the care and maintenance Valdosta takes in maintaining its sports facilities and in providing excellent customer service for tournament owners and organizers, coaches, players, fans and families.
“Our parks and rec staff is outstanding and always attentive to visitor needs,” Page said. “We make sure all the details are in order, the grounds are neatly manicured and clean, restrooms are always clean. It’s these seemingly small details, which in reality aren’t really small at all, that truly make a difference, especially for players and families traveling to our area.”
“We make it easy for people to do business with us,” said Hamilton. “From our excellent, and growing, sports facilities to our restaurants and hotels that suit all tastes and budgets, to a historic downtown and great weather, we take care of all our guests and pay a lot of attention to our customers.
“We make sure that athletes and families that come to our area have a ‘Very Valdosta’ experience. We’re certain that they will have an amazing time while they’re here.” SDM