By Paul Huggins, firstname.lastname@example.org, staff writer, The Decatur Daily
NAIA softball officials and participants felt Decatur lacked several keys to successfully host the annual national championship series, which could explain why Decatur’s biggest tourism event will move to Gulf Shores in 2011 and 2012 after 11 straight years at Wilson Morgan Park.
The teams and officials specifically listed a lack of quality hotel rooms for 32 teams, a lack of practice space/batting cages at Wilson Morgan Park, a lack of a nearby NAIA school and a lack of community attendance at games during the week-long event.
“We were looking for a Wow! and wound up with an Ouch!” Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said of the survey results.
Decatur was host to the softball championship tournament for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics 13 of the past 15 years. The past two years, it expanded from a 20-team field to 32 teams, making it the city’s biggest tourism event with an economic impact of more than $1.5 million, according to the visitors bureau, which factors in the trickle-down effect of how tourism spending creates other jobs and spending.
The 12 teams who filled out surveys reported spending a combined $116,870 while in Decatur.
Reist said the most common weakness the survey participants listed for Decatur was a lack of practice space and batting cages at Wilson Morgan Park.
Several teams listed the quality of the playing surfaces and grounds crew as tournament strengths, but complained about having to schedule practice times, not having batting cages and a lack of rain tarpaulins. The team from California also said Wilson Morgan lacked stadium seating one would expect for a national championship.
“The report was favorable for parks and recreation, but they said they needed a new complex,” Reist said. “If we want to be competitive in this market, we got to keep upgrading our facilities. We can’t get complacent.
“I feel like in two years, we need to look at something new or make some improvements.”
Decatur Parks and Recreation already has a new, $12 million baseball/softball complex on its wish list to handle the city’s growing demand for fields. It would be at Beltline Road Southwest and Trinity Lane and feature six softball fields and eight baseball fields.
But there are other issues, unrelated to Wilson Morgan, that drew complaints from NAIA teams and officials.
Comments about some Decatur hotels included: “not quite what we expected;” “jacked up prices just for tournament;” “outdated;” “under-staffed;” “mildew and water damage;” and “some hotels don’t have a free breakfast.”
Each hotel received copies of the survey and the specific complaints listed for its property.
Overall, the teams gave Decatur a good score when rating their visit on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). Three teams gave a 5 rating, five teams gave a 4 rating, two teams gave a 3 rating and one team gave a 2 rating.
When reviewing the survey Thursday, there was sentiment among bureau board members that the tournament moved to Gulf Shores simply because it wanted a change of scenery and felt it needed to take place where NAIA member colleges were nearby to support it.
Athens State was Decatur’s NAIA representative until it dropped its athletic programs in 2004.
Some of the board also expressed hopefulness that the tournament going away for two years will show NAIA officials how special Decatur is and they’ll want to come back.
Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Tom Chappell inspected the softball complex in Gulf Shores and said while the facility is new and larger than Wilson Morgan, the playing fields are not as high quality as Wilson Morgan.
Reist said the bureau staff is having success in luring new sports events to Decatur to help make up for the loss of NAIA. It recently secured the state tennis championships for five classifications from 2011-13 and the men’s and women’s tennis championships for the Southwestern Athletic Conference next year. It also booked a three-on-three soccer tourney for July 2011 that will serve as a regional qualifier for the national tournament.
The bureau also has begun efforts to host a rowing regatta at Point Mallard, has bid to host the Alabama Community College Conference tennis tournament for its fourth straight year and is working to get the state high school softball and soccer championships.
In addition, Reist said the loss of the NAIA tournament opens Decatur hotels that third week in May to accommodate SoulStock, a one-day outdoor Christian concert that made its debut at Point Mallard this year after outgrowing Athens State. It attracted 12,000 to 15,000 attendees.
The bureau has mailed out SoulStock invitations to 900 churches in the region in hopes of filling up local hotels.