For a city of 60,000 residents, Conway, Arkansas, prides itself on several publicly-owned sports facilities that cater to youth sports teams and tournaments. Two multi-purpose athletic and recreation complexes, about two dozen baseball, softball and soccer fields – and a series of signature annual events – qualify Conway as an up-and-coming player on the national sports destination scene.
“Our city leaders realize the value of youth sports, and about five years ago, they decided to make them a priority,” says Rachel Shaw, director of destination marketing for the Conway Convention & Visitors Bureau, who arrived just as Conway was establishing that priority.
Located about 30 miles due north of Little Rock, Conway today welcomes several athletic events every year, and has room for more.
“The more organizers get familiar with our facilities and our team at the parks department and CVB, the more they like what they see,” Shaw says. “We’re in an evolutionary phase.”
Baseball, Softball and More
Conway’s current strengths are baseball, softball and soccer, and the best place to begin when discussing the city’s sports facilities is Conway Station Park — home to nine baseball fields complete with lights and considered one of the finest complexes in the state. Eight fields offer a 225-foot-long fence, while the ninth provides a 350-foot-long fence. Other highlights include permanent covered bleachers, a concessions stand, heated/air-conditioned restrooms, a maintenance shed and a large pond.
Conway Station Park is expected to host 22 tournaments and other events between February and September this year, Shaw says. Many of them are organized by Central Arkansas Sports Management (CASM), which caters to baseball and tee-ball players between the ages of five and 16.
CASM also brings many youth softball events to Conway’s City of Colleges Park. Honored as the 2010 “Facility of the Year” by the Arkansas Recreation & Parks Association, the complex offers five manicured fields with warm-up pitching areas at every dugout, covered stadium seating and lighting.
The Hiland Dairy Youth Classic, now in its second year and named after the oldest dairy in Arkansas, is well on its way to becoming an annual June tradition at the complex and attracts youth teams from Arkansas and surrounding states. The debut event brought in 69 teams in 2015. Organizers Clint and Marla Albright, who already host a popular adult softball tournament in North Little Rock, contacted city leaders about starting a youth tournament in Conway.
“They liked our facilities, and last year’s event was bigger than expected,” Shaw says. “This year is expected to be even bigger.”
In addition to using the fields at City of Colleges Park, the tournament also takes place on fields at the nearby Don Owen Complex, a large multi-purpose facility with three lighted softball fields, six tee-ball fields, four racquetball courts and three basketball courts that convert to six volleyball courts. Open to local residents for recreational use, as well as tournament organizers for competitive action, the complex often shares events with the McGee Center, a similarly-sized facility with comparable offerings (minus the outdoor fields) located on the other side of Conway.
Both venues hosted the two-day Conway Classic Blast Tournament in February, which brought in more than 80 U18 teams from all over the state.
For the past five years, HoopPlayUSA has held a national summer tournament in Conway that averages about 300 teams and takes over the Don Owen Complex and the McGee Center, plus just about every available basketball court in the surrounding communities.
Another city-owned facility, the 51.5-acre Centennial Soccer Park, offers 10 full-size fields and two U10-size fields. Four of them are lit and feature bleacher seating, and a concessions stand, coach/referee room and air-conditioned restrooms also are available on the site.
The 10th annual Showcase of the South, sponsored by the Arkansas United Soccer Club, was held at the park in January after flooding at the North Little Rock facility that usually hosts the event forced its relocation further north. More than 60 teams from Arkansas as well as such states as Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Texas and Kentucky participated, Shaw says, and organizers were pleased.
“Our hope is that it will come here more often now,” says Shaw, who adds that she also is working with another organization to bring a 3v3 tournament to Centennial Soccer Park this summer.
‘City of Colleges’
Often referred to as “the city of colleges,” Conway is home to three post-secondary educational institutions. The largest — and the most active in terms of coordinating with city leaders to host sporting events — is the University of Central Arkansas. City and campus officials have a strong relationship, Shaw says, and UCA is the host site for the Arkansas State High School Coaches Association All-Star Games.
Held during one week every June, the event brings together some of the top graduating high school senior athletes in football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and soccer. Players live on campus and practice and compete at UCA venues — giving them a taste of college life and one last on-field experience playing as a high school athlete.
Conway’s other two post-secondary educational institutions are Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. While Central Baptist College uses city facilities for its sports teams, Hendrix, a private liberal arts college, opens its basketball courts and sports fields to outside events. In fact, Shaw says she is working with Hendrix College officials to bring lacrosse tournaments to Conway, especially during the winter and spring months. That’s when weather in several destinations up and down the East Coast — a region renowned for its lacrosse-playing population — can be much colder, nastier and more unpredictable than in Arkansas.
Additionally, officials at the Arkansas Rush Soccer club, headquartered in Conway, hope to bring lacrosse and rugby events to Centennial Soccer Park — opening up the city to new sports and new opportunities to further establish Conway as a highly sought youth sports destination.
Conway, Candy and Crappies
Conway is home to 1,400 hotel rooms, most of them built during the past decade, Shaw says, and discussions are underway for a new outdoor mall facility and a convention center that would include additional hotels.
Among the must-see shops in Conway’s “thriving downtown,” Shaw says, is the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop. Although it may not be the first place coaches want their young athletes to visit, it’s tough to deny youth sports teams a stop at the fun and colorful store. “It’s always full on tournament weekends,” Shaw says with a laugh.
Conway’s downtown also offers antique stores, gift shops and boutiques, a farmers’ and crafts market, and even a baton-twirling studio. Dining options include a variety of coffee shops, bakeries, cafes, and pizza and sandwich places.
Additionally, the Share.the.Love Kidsclub provides more than 3,000 square feet of indoor, interactive and creative play space for kids in the family who might not be competing in Conway but need an outlet for physical activity nonetheless.
Another local highlight is UCA’s Baum Gallery, which features limited-engagement art exhibits.
Conway also is known as a popular sport-fishing destination and is home to Lake Conway, which at 6,700 acres is considered the largest man-made game and fish commissioned lake in the United States. It is approximately eight miles long with 52 miles of shoreline, and the Arkansas Crappie Masters state tournament is held there every spring.
Summers are warm, winters are mild and traveling around Conway is easy thanks to series of roundabouts that have been installed throughout the city over the past decade or so — shortening travel time, increasing traffic flow and decreasing the number of accidents.
“With a convenient location, first-class facilities and a young active population, Conway will work to make sure your next event reaches its full potential,” Shaw says.