The Heartland, Home of Wide-Open Spaces and Smiling Faces
20 Nov, 2017By: Michael Popke
When the Nebraska Golf Association considered hosting a tournament last summer in Kearney — a city in the direct path of the 2017 total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 — Lynelle Fritzen talked organizers out of the idea.
“They were going to be here during the eclipse, and I told them not to come,” says the sports sales and services manager for the Kearney Visitors Bureau. “Hotel rooms were going for $500 to $1,000 a night, and I was afraid that would hurt attendance.”
You’ll find that kind of friendly transparency all over the American Midwest. Just because they aren’t as large or famous as destinations on either coast doesn’t mean Midwestern cities should be overlooked.
“We have offerings of sports, recreation, arts, food and things to see and do comparable to a larger city,” says Tiffany Benien, sports and events manager for the Salina (Kansas) Area Chamber of Commerce. “Plus, we provide Midwestern friendly service and hospitality. Once you visit, you’re going to want to return.”
Here are eight Midwestern destinations that prove the heartland delivers.
Kearney was a popular destination long before the sun disappeared behind the moon. The University of Nebraska at Kearney helps bring in multiple high-profile events, including the Nebraska School Activities Association’s Dual Wrestling State Championships at the Health and Sports Center and the Nebraska Six-Man Football State Championship at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
The stadium also hosts the Shrine Bowl of Nebraska, a charity game featuring top high school seniors in the state, while the Buffalo County Fairgrounds (with indoor and outdoor venues) provides opportunities for large wrestling tournaments such as the Midwest Classic Nationals and Mat Jam Wrestling, as well as rodeos and other events. Patriot Park opened in May 2017 and offers four baseball fields and four softball fields, all of them with lights. Kearney also hosts college cross-country and track and field meets, and welcomed the 2017 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game to the Viaero Center last January.
“We’re an ideal, central location directly off Interstate 80, five hours from Denver, Kansas City and Des Moines,” Fritzen says, noting that Kearney is located the exact same distance from San Francisco as it is from Boston (1,733 miles).
Like Kearney, Salina’s centralized location packs broad appeal. “Our location is certainly a factor,” Benien says. “But more importantly, the local people take great pride in our community, and they spend many hours outside of their regular jobs building relationships and volunteering. There is a strong sense of ownership in our facilities and events.”
Indeed, many facilities exist via partnerships with public entities, as well as private businesses and individuals. The city’s newest facility is the Salina Fieldhouse, a 65,000-square-foot multi-purpose space that opened in 2017. Dean Evans Stadium seats 800 for baseball, Magnolia Soccer Complex offers a dozen fields, Mabee Arena at Kansas Wesleyan University hosts several NAIA events and Bill Burke Park provides 16 lighted baseball diamonds.
Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan
Head north to “The Great Lakes State” and you’ll find plenty of opportunities in two of Michigan’s most active cities.
Grand Rapids hosted the State Games of America in August and attracted 11,670 athletes from 47 states, Canada, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. Organizers of the Meijer State Games of Michigan generated the attention of officials from the State Games of America with their attention to detail, sharing of fiscal responsibilities with local clubs and other partners, and the event’s major growth in a short period of time, according to Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission.
“We’re all in this together,” he says, adding that Grand Rapids also attracts multiple NAIA and NCAA Division II and III events, especially in softball, lacrosse and track and field. Newer events to the area include weightlifting competitions and fat bike races.
Ann Arbor, meanwhile, boasts the University of Michigan, which will open a new $168 million multi-sport facility in early 2018, highlighted by a hydraulic track to alter the height of embankment angles. Four invitationals already are scheduled for January and February, and the facility will host the 2019 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships.
“Ann Arbor is becoming a destination athletic organizations want to come and experience,” says Laura Berarducci, director of marketing for the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Recent or upcoming events include the LPGA Volvik Championship, U.S. Figure Skating’s Eastern Great Lakes Regional and a futsal tournament called the Chocolate Milk Cup Powered by the Ann Arbor Sports Commission.
This community of 125,000 residents boasts two universities — Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan — which help bring in several high-profile collegiate and state high school championships, as well as a variety of basketball, baseball and track and field events.
“We’re fortunate for our size to have a number of first-class facilities,” says Matt Hawkins, sports marketing manager for the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, pointing to additional facilities such as Champion Fields at Maxwell Park, Grossinger Motors Arena, Game Time Gym II and The Corn Crib, home of the Frontier League’s Normal CornBelters, which also can host softball and soccer, Hawkins says.
Shawnee hosts the annual International Youth Finals Rodeo, considered the world’s richest youth rodeo. “We celebrated the 20th anniversary in 2017,” says Emily Lutz, marketing director for Visit Shawnee. “There were about 800 to 1,000 kids, with $250,000 in prize money.”
But Shawnee also is making a name for itself in golf and other sports. Thanks to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, one of four Native American tribes in the area, the city offers FireLake Golf Course, ranked among the finest in the state, and Visit Shawnee officials are looking to bring in more golf events. Additionally, The Ball Fields at FireLake provide four lighted fields and are booked a year in advance, according to Lutz.
Additionally, Visit Shawnee is working closely with officials at Oklahoma Baptist University, which moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II status in 2015, to bring in such events as the 2017 National Christian College Athletic Association Outdoor Track & Field National Championships. St. Gregory’s University, meanwhile, has hosted the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Region II Basketball Tournament.
St. Charles, Missouri
Located along the Missouri River, St. Charles — like many Midwestern destinations — prides itself on big-city amenities and small-town charm. With a population of about 70,000, the city also uses its size to its advantage. “Because we’re a smaller city, our accommodations and casual-style restaurants are more affordable and geared toward family travelers,” says Chris Wilson, sports sales manager for the Greater St. Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Among the facility highlights: The Family Arena, which boasts more than 31,200 square feet of floor space; the Ozzie Smith Sports Complex and CarShield Field, for baseball and softball tournaments; the National Equestrian Center, a 24-acre venue that meets standards for all equestrian competitions; the 60-acre St. Charles Soccer Complex Park; and St. Peter’s Rec-Plex, with three sheets of ice and a competition pool. The Lindenwood University Ice Arena in nearby Wentzville also offers two regulation-size ice surfaces.
Hamilton County, Indiana
The sprawling 400-acre Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, with 31 multi-purpose fields, 26 ballfields, an events center and a privately owned fieldhouse, is quickly becoming a major youth sports destination and recently was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”. The site has hosted USA Archery’s National Target Championships, Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball and The Grail for boys’ lacrosse. The Indianapolis Colts will hold training camp there beginning in 2018.
“Grand Park opened the doors to a lot of events we couldn’t have previously brought in,” says Scott Spillman, sports development manager for the Hamilton County Sports Authority, which represents four major cities (Westfield, Noblesville, Fishers and Carmel). “It’s been crazy to see its growth. We say to any event owner we meet, ‘If you bring your event to Grand Park, you’re going to see a 20 percent increase in participation.’” SDM