Mayors from around South Carolina visited Rock Hill and Fort Mill on Thursday to talk sports tourism and pick up new economic development ideas.
Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols helped lead the visit, showing the visiting mayors some of the city’s parks and recreation facilities that have turned sports tourism into a lucrative business for the city. Last year, officials estimate that its hosting of tournaments and major sporting events had an $18 million economic impact on businesses.
Host cities and the organizers who plan athletic events refer to “heads on beds” as one measure of the positive impact that sports tourism can have for host cities or towns. Supporters point to hotel visits, restaurant meals and the filling of gas tanks as benefits of sports tourism.
Many South Carolina cities such as Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach and Greenville are cashing in with sports tourism by hosting events from youth sports to the professional level.
On Thursday, mayors from many of the state’s small towns said they’re eager to join the mix.
In Lake City, plans are forming for a new baseball and softball complex that could host tournaments and support recent successes of local teams, said Mayor Lovith Anderson. A town of about 6,700 people, Lake City is much smaller than Rock Hill’s population of nearly 70,000.
Still, Anderson said, towns of any size can benefit from well-run sports facilities. Attracting out-of-town families can boost local businesses’ profits, he said.
“When children play, parents will come,” Anderson said.
Rock Hill entered into sports tourism nearly three decades ago when Cherry Park was built to host regional and national baseball and softball tournaments. Since then, the city has expanded its facilities to include biking and walking trails, competitive cycling venues and a soccer complex.
Sports tourism is paying for itself, officials say, through Rock Hill’s 2 percent hospitality tax – a charge on prepared food and drinks at local businesses. Money from the tax is re-invested to maintain and support parks and build new facilities.
Rock Hill takes in about $3.5 million annually from the 2 percent tax and a portion of the tax visitors pay at local hotels.
“People sometimes say, ‘Why are we in all this stuff?’ ” Echols said on Thursday. “Well, (the economic benefit) is why we’re in it.”
Over the past 10 years, Rock Hill city officials estimate that sports tourism has resulted in a $122 million economic impact to restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Besides direct dollars, Echols said, hosting prominent sporting events has boosted Rock Hill’s profile and brought visitors who become interested in investing in the city.
While riding a bus to the Outdoor Center at Riverwalk with the group of 15 South Carolina mayors on Thursday, Echols told one of his favorite sports tourism success stories: the city’s landing of the Earthfare grocery store near Winthrop University.
Rock Hill economic development officials were trying to woo a grocery retailer a few years ago to fill a vacant storefront near the campus on Cherry Road, he said. When Echols called Earthfare’s CEO to talk up Rock Hill, the business executive said he had already visited the city.
The CEO’s introduction to Rock Hill was Manchester Meadows – the city’s soccer complex. The Manchester experience impressed him enough to open his grocery store in the city, Echols said.
He told the mayor, “Any community that would invest in a soccer complex like that ought to have an Earthfare.”
The lesson, Echols said, is that sports tourism “makes a difference.”
After a brief tour of Rock Hill’s under-construction BMX Supercross track, Johnston Mayor Terrence Culbreath said the Thursday sports tourism tour inspired him to help his town “think outside the box.”
Elected less than two months ago, Culbreath said he’s eager to draft a plan for nearly 40 acres donated to the town. The land, he said, could be best used for recreation and help Johnston enter into sports tourism.
A past president of the South Carolina mayors association, Echols said meetings like Thursday’s tour serve to help mayors brainstorm ideas and meet their counterparts from across the state.
While in York County, the Association of South Carolina Mayors also stopped in Fort Mill with Mayor Danny Funderburk. There, the tour focused on economic development projects and the town’s booming population.