City officials in Albertville, Alabama, knew a change was needed. That’s why, back in 2012, they began strategizing about ways to replace the community’s outdated fields, courts, pools and playgrounds.
Enter Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater, a sprawling publicly funded facility with the potential to alter the region’s sports tourism landscape.
“Recreation has been a pillar in this community going back many years, and we want to carry that forward in a significant way at SMPA,” says Patrick O’Brien, general manager of the 130-acre sports, recreation, wellness and entertainment site that will open this year in two phases. “Albertville’s youth has great participation rates in sports, music, arts and theater. The senior population is very active in the community, and there is a huge opportunity to grow adult recreation leagues, as well. Baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, football, soccer, swimming, tennis and pickleball are some of the more popular sports in this region.”
All of which make Albertville (situated in northeastern Alabama at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, where the sun shines for 200 days per year and outdoor sports can be played almost year-round) an ideal location for a facility such as SMPA. Birmingham and Huntsville, major Alabama cities each with international airports, aren’t too far away, and Nashville and Atlanta are both only a three-hour drive from Albertville.
According to projections, SMPA will generate a $4 million economic impact in the first year and create more than 100 job opportunities. Not only will it strive to become a major sports tourism destination in the Southeast, but it also will meet the local community’s broad interests and needs.
“[Albertville’s] mayor and city council have done a tremendous job leading the SMPA journey from day one,” O’Brien says. “Their vision and dedication to improving Albertville/Sand Mountain region is why SMPA is coming to fruition.”
The city hired Sports Facilities Management — and, by extension, O’Brien — to oversee the day-to-day operations of the facility. SFM, based in Clearwater, Florida, also manages more than a dozen other facilities in the United States and now serves as Albertville’s de facto recreation department. “One of our top priorities is to elevate the recreation experience for this community,” O’Brien says.
The first phase of Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater is expected to be completed this spring. It will include nine all-turf baseball and softball fields, five multi-sport all-turf fields for soccer, football and lacrosse, 16 tennis courts (four of them clay), an 18-hole disc-golf course, two outdoor basketball courts, two sand volleyball courts, a four-mile walking/running/biking trail, three concessions areas, playgrounds adjacent to field pods, two dog parks, free Wi-Fi, umpire changing rooms, an outdoor pavilion and a 17-lot RV park. There will be approximately 1,100 parking spaces, as well as about 500 onsite overflow spaces.
All fields will offer LED lights, scoreboards and ample spectator seating for at least 150. A championship baseball field will hold 800 spectators, a championship softball field will seat 600, and the championship multi-sport field will house up to 1,000 fans.
SMPA’s second phase, slated to open this summer, will include four hardwood basketball/volleyball courts that can be converted to pickleball courts, an eight-lane competition pool, a two-story fitness center, two group-exercise studios, two racquetball courts, an indoor walking/running track, childcare facilities, a conference room, two party rooms and four additional concessions areas.
There also will be an outdoor waterpark with slides, a lazy river, splashpads and a sports pool, as well as an amphitheater that will hold 7,500 people and attract top-name national acts, and a Miracle Field designed for players with special needs that also will provide a home for a Miracle League. When not being used, the field can be utilized for sports-performance training and 3-on-3 soccer tournaments, according to O’Brien.
“We’re really trying to focus on the whole experience — not just for players but for their families, too,” he says. “I strongly believe SMPA will be one of the very best sports, recreation, wellness and entertainment venues in the entire country. There’s a lot of excitement and energy happening right now.”
Filling Up Fast
The ambitious SMPA project is playing a significant role in Albertville’s current growth phase. Over the past eight years, the city has evolved significantly, attracting new residents and bolstering some of its primary industries, which include poultry and fire hydrants. In fact, Albertville is known as the “Fire Hydrant Capital of the World,” thanks to the longtime presence of hydrant manufacturer Mueller Co.
In early January, SMPA officials were in discussions with numerous event organizers that could have the new baseball and softball diamonds booked through late July.
The inaugural event, a Perfect Game youth baseball tournament, is slated for April 4-5 on all nine fields. All told, seven Perfect Game tournaments will be held at SMPA this year. Additionally, a Prep Baseball Report tournament will take place on seven fields in June, and O’Brien says the facility is in negotiations with other rights holders for baseball, softball, basketball and soccer events for 2020 and beyond.
“We are also submitting a bid for the 2023 D-II NCAA Softball National Championships,” he adds. “In addition, we are talking to an MMA rights holder for a 2020 or 2021 event, and we’re going to introduce lacrosse to the community.”
The amphitheater concept is new, too — at least to the sports facility environment. In addition to hosting an estimated 10 to 12 large events per year, the venue is expected to be used by tournament organizers for awards ceremonies, kickoff events, movie nights and other community events.
“We wanted something to complement sports events that also would make for a memorable experience,” O’Brien says, adding that an amphitheater can be a boon in the right market. “Albertville already has an active arts culture and is the perfect fit. This is a great way to further integrate SMPA with the community.”
Indeed, Albertville’s culture will play a large role in the success of the new facility, he says, citing several points of interest for competitors and their families beyond the park’s limits. They include the Albertville Museum, Jules Berta Winery & Vineyards, the Downtown Albertville Farmers Market and numerous dining and shopping options.
Not too far outside the city is Lake Guntersville (which offers fishing, boating, hiking and camping opportunities), the Whole Backstage Theatre in Guntersville and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. New hotels and retail outlets are on the way, too.
‘An Awesome Atmosphere’
While O’Brien says total cost estimates for the Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater project aren’t available yet, early reports placed the price tag at $58 million. Total cost figures will be determined upon project completion.
Meanwhile, O’Brien and his team are making sure everything is in place for that first pitch on April 4.
“Our mission is to dramatically improve the health and economic vitality of the Sand Mountain region,” O’Brien says. “Our No. 1 focus is developing strong relationships at the rights-holder level. We’ve listened to the challenges they’ve had at other venues, and we want to make sure we are a great fit by delivering excellence with enthusiasm.”
At the same time, SMPA will strive to improve the quality of life for Albertville residents, spur additional commercial development within Marshall County and carry on the community’s rich tradition of culture and congeniality.
“The other important part about Albertville as a sports destination is the genuine kindness people have here,” says O’Brien, who took over general manager duties in July 2019. “I’ve experienced it firsthand moving here. People are extremely genuine and kind, and they are interested in making sure you feel welcome in their community. That Southern hospitality aspect will help provide an awesome atmosphere for SMPA visitors.” SDM