Monday, February 1, 2010

A tourism balancing act

Upgrades are needed to lure visitors, parks officials say
By Catherine Godbey, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

Decatur Parks and Recreation puts tourism into a core philosophy: Help pay for parks by creating first-class facilities that attract tournaments and visitors who boost tax revenue.

But staying on top in the recreation industry is a constant battle.

If the city fails to upgrade the facilities, revenue generated through the occupancy tax will decrease, parks officials warn. And the occupancy tax generated through local hotels funds improvements.

“When you’re on top, everyone shoots for you. Jack Allen is on top right now but every new facility is trying to beat Jack Allen,” said Parks Assistant Director Tom Chappell. “Unless we add new fields and amenities, Jack Allen will become outdated.”

For now, the 11-field Jack Allen Recreational Complex reigns as one of the top facilities in the Southeast, but other local attractions, including the J. Gilmer Blackburn Aquatic Center, are struggling.

With no new features since 2005, the water park could suffer decreased attendance.

“The fear at Point Mallard is that we are losing customers because there hasn’t been a new attraction. The people are looking for new things to do, and they will go elsewhere to do them,” Chappell said.

Officials, citing the two new water slides in Cullman and the addition of a Lazy River in Nashville, said the threat to the aquatic center will increase this season.

“We used to pull people from those areas, but they may not come here this time. They may decide to stay closer to their homes,” said Parks Director Jeff Dunlap.

To keep Point Mallard competitive, the city needs to upgrade the 40-year-old park, officials said. Dunlap said the theme and water park associations recommend adding a new attraction every year.

“Most parks add a new ride every year. They may skip a year, but the ride better be twice as good,” said Marketing Coordinator Julianne Lowman.

If Point Mallard does not add a new attraction in the next two years, Dunlap fears the aquatic center’s attendance will fall, negatively impacting the park’s income.

Dunlap pointed to past administrations as proof of what inaction can cause.

“When Gilmer Blackburn constructed Point Mallard, man, we were on top of the world. Everybody talked about Decatur,” Dunlap said.

“Then we went forever and didn’t do anything and other cities passed us.”

In 1985, the city returned to the recreation elite with the building of the Wilson Morgan Softball Complex.

“Wilson Morgan was at the top as far as softball complexes. We were getting everything we wanted and then we didn’t do anything and started losing tournaments,” Dunlap said. “We can either do a little and get bypassed or we can continue to stay on top.”

Suggested additions to Decatur’s park system include speed slides and a Lazy River at Point Mallard, locker rooms and two soccer fields at Jack Allen, a new baseball and softball complex in Southwest Decatur and two courts at the Jimmy Johns Tennis Center.

Combined, the upgrades would cost approximately $18 million. Dunlap suggested going to the bond market to borrow funds and argued the additions would pay for themselves by attracting more visitors.

“Let someone else come into town and bring those tax dollars. The more people that come in from out of town, great, because that’s just providing more income and revenue to the city so the rest of us can benefit,” Lowman said.

Council President Greg Reeves, who is parks and recreation liaison, acknowledged the impact of sports in Decatur, but questioned whether investing millions of dollars into a single attraction is responsible.

“There is no question the work started with Gilmer Blackburn and extending to Ingalls Harbor and Jack Allen has proven to be a wise investment for the city,” Reeves said. “With the economy the way it is, we need to concentrate on the fundamentals and making sure everything is in good condition.”

While obligating $3 million for a Lazy River is unlikely, spending $100,000 for two tennis courts at Jimmy Johns that could bring in more tournaments is more manageable, Reeves said.

“All of the expenses we’re asking for, it is not a question of how much it costs to do it, it becomes a question of how much does it cost the city if we don’t do it,” Chappell said.

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