'This is a big, big, big step': Why one new field in Tega Cay could mean business.

What's another ballfield when you have three already? For the coming Catawba Park in Tega Cay, it's a big deal.

"This is a very exciting concept for me," said Mayor David O'Neal. "We've been talking about Catawba Park for 10 years."

Catawba Park is a more than 60-acre park planned for New Gray Rock Road. Tega Cay City Council has been stashing away money for it since at least 2013. Development agreements for projects like Gardendale and Stonecrest added money. Hospitality tax revenue brought more. The park could cost $12 million.

On May 21, Tega Cay City Council voted to spend $100,000 on just more than an acre adjacent to Central Bark, the city dog park on New Gray Rock. It wasn't just any acre. When added to the Catawba Park plan, it will allow for an extra baseball or softball field.

"The plan was, because we couldn't get the land, it was going to be for three softball fields and everybody says you have to have four ballfields in order to have tournaments," O'Neal said, "and we were basically building something that wasn't going to be used unless we had four."

The city will use baseball fields for its recreation program, as it will soccer fields planned at Catawba Park. Where the fourth ballfield helps most, though, is for tournament play.

USSSA is perhaps the best known sports organization for travel ball tournaments. Jason Gross, executive director with Gameday USSSA and state director for South Carolina, sets up events for thousands of teams annually.

"Four fields is always better than three," Gross said. "The more fields you have, the more it's worth it for the directors."

Gross works with four-field sites, up to parks with 15 or 20 fields. Tournaments can be designed for "whatever the parks can accommodate," he said. A typical weekend tournament on four fields might have 20 teams. Those teams bring players, coaches and families who look for local restaurants and activities when they visit.

"It just varies," Gross said of the economic impact, "but it's significant."

Rock Hill, which has Cherry and Hargett parks along with the Terry Complex at Winthrop University, will field more than 30 baseball or softball tournaments this year. While it's only a part of the city's sports tourism package — soccer, major events — the baseball and softball events contribute to the spike in sports tourism revenue during warm months of the year.

Sports tourism in Rock Hill generated less than $1 million each in January and February, but close to $4 million in March.

Rock Hill and Tega Cay aren't the only communities with an eye on ballfields, and what they can mean beyond rec league play. Fort Mill opened Dobys Bridge Park a few years back with its three fields, and got land for the coming park at Waterside at the Catawba through a development agreement.

That new, yet unnamed park is likely to have four ballfields. Brown Simpson, parks and recreation director in Fort Mill, said last fall he anticipated something similar to Dobys Bridge Park, but with the additional field.

"Some of it," he said, "but I think what we want to do is put some more picnic shelters out there, and we want to have a full walking trail. And of course our inclusive playground will be there."

In Lake Wylie, a new sports park has been in the planning stages for a decade or more. York County Council approved a design-build contract on May 21 to get that project headed toward construction.

Some sites combine field types, like the mix of baseball/softball and soccer at Catawba Park and the one planned for Lake Wylie. They are thus able to host multiple types of tournaments, even at the same time when parking allows. For tournament organizers, fields for other sports don't make much difference.

What does make a difference, whether the water frontage at Catawba Park or the inclusive playground coming in Fort Mill or the walking trails at the Lake Wylie park, is attraction. Teams want to play in a place where they can see and do plenty.

"The water helps," Gross said of the riverfront Catawba Park plan. "Soccer won't make a difference for what we do. Right on the water would be beautiful."

Tournament organizers are confident they'll be able to fill all the new park space, too.

"It'll be great," Gross said. "We definitely need more fields in that area."

In Tega Cay, the idea behind Catawba Park is to have a focal point, a gathering space for the city. It will have an open meadow area big enough to host a festival. It will have trails. It will serve a growing number of youth rec league players each spring and fall.

The sports tourism component is important, but Catawba Park is bigger than tournaments.

"This shows that we are really trying to get Catawba Park going," O'Neal said. "This is a big, big, big step."

Prior to the recent decision, the city owned 10 acres for the park. The city worked out lease agreements with Duke Energy and Clear Springs for the remainder. A year ago, the city set up its Tega Cay Forever Committee to raise funds for the park. The group is now a registered nonprofit.

"I'm really excited about this," said Tega Cay Councilwoman Heather Overman, liaison to the committee. "We're finally picking up some steam and moving in the right direction. I can't wait to make this become a reality."

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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