Sunday, December 12, 2010

High hopes for Decatur tourism

Primed by past decade’s successes, officials have big plans for 2020
By Paul Huggins

Point Mallard’s water park and the ball fields at Wilson Morgan Park have served Decatur’s tourism industry well for decades, but both could be living in oblivion by 2020.

Decatur Parks and Recreation’s repeated pleas for upgrades for the J. Gilmer Blackburn Aquatic Center and building a new baseball/softball complex have yet to find a willing partner at City Hall to get the money for those improvements.

But local residents have cause to feel optimistic, tourism officials said, because the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s 2010 Tourism Development Agenda addresses the above needs, and that comes from the same group that succeeded in fulfilling most of its wish list in 2000.

Nearly everything on the 2000 agenda was realized: a conference center (partially), riverfront attraction, better signage for local attractions, a new boat launch and a re-distribution of city lodging taxes to go directly to those responsible for promoting the city.

“When Tami (Reist, visitors bureau president) gets behind a project and when the CVB gets behind a program, the track record is pretty darn good,” said Tom Chappell, Parks and Recreation assistant director and visitors board member.

Chappell has high hopes that the partnership between parks and recreation and the visitors bureau will produce as good or even better results in the next decade.

So what’s in store for the next 10 years?

A conference center; river boat; lazy river and more water slides at Point Mallard; a new baseball/softball complex; enhancements to Ingalls Harbor, such as a restaurant and museum; and upgrades at Jack Allen Soccer Complex with two more fields, playground and locker rooms.

Some of the minor wish list items include an expanded convenience store at Riverwalk Marina, adding wireless Internet throughout all parks, a restaurant behind the 15th green at the Point Mallard Golf Course and adding cabins along waterways or at Point Mallard Park.

The agenda appears loftier than goals listed in 2000, but tourism officials want to dream big considering how Jack Allen and Ingalls Harbor outperformed expectations.

“We have the leading edge on sports and recreation with Jack Allen and that was not even on our list in 2000,” Reist said.

Ingalls pavillion
Of the five top goals in 2000, only the conference center remains unfulfilled. But tourism officials can point to the 6,000-square-foot Ingalls Pavilion, which the city will accept bids for this week, as an interim facility. It can be enclosed and heated in winter and seat 600 to 700 at tables, double what Decatur can offer now.

Tourism officials worked with city leaders to buy the old Ingalls Iron Works property using money generated by a $2-per-night occupancy fee local hotels imposed on themselves. Then they built a boat launch that is heralded as the top facility for hosting major fishing tournaments in the nation.

“We get to pick and choose tournaments now, instead of begging for events,” said Wade Weaver, visitors bureau board treasurer.

The property also has proved a riverfront attraction ideal for the ever expanding Riverfest barbecue championship and still has room for a riverboat dock, museum, picnic pavilions and restaurant.

Another goal was installing way-finding signs to point visitors to key local attractions. Last year, the city installed the first phase of those signs for downtown attractions. More signs will go up this year, pointing to places such as Jack Allen and Point Mallard.

The visitors bureau also persuaded the city to share 75 percent of the city’s lodging taxes with the bureau, instead of 50 percent, with the added responsibility to more actively promote local festivals and events. The Wet Dog Triathlon is an example of one event that grew under the new arrangements. A record 600 participants competed this year in the race sponsored by the Decatur Jaycees.

Occupancy tax
The $2-per-night occupancy fee has generated more than $3 million since instituted in 2001, and that money has paid for Ingalls Harbor, as well as more than $300,000 in enhancements to Hospitality Park (formerly Day Park) for attracting birdwatchers, and another $96,000 for a press box at Jack Allen.

Reist said that fund is tapped out, but after current debts, primarily Ingalls Harbor, are paid, the bureau will look to add or enhance facilities that continue to draw visitors.

Chappell said the bureau may have to help the city and parks and recreation with some of its wish lists.

Chappell said the loss of the NAIA softball championship revealed Wilson Morgan was too small for such a large event, and Decatur needs a new complex with 14 fields that carries a price tag of at least $12 million.

To ensure Decatur maintains its grip on soccer tournaments at Jack Allen, Chappell said the park needs to keep adding to it, specifically, two more fields, a locker/changing room with showers and a playground/family area with picnic pavilions. Estimates for these enhancements start at about $2 million, he said.

“Just because you build it, it’s not done,” he said. “Other communities come and look at its strengths and weaknesses, build something better and take business away. When you’re on top, people are trying to knock you off.”

As for Point Mallard’s water park, it has long needed new slides and water features, Chappell said, and a lazy river would be the first on the list of additions, probably costing around $3 million. A new double-drop speed slide would add $250,000 more to the wish list.

“In the next 10 years, that’s got to be done or that asset goes away.” Chappell said.

The conference center, preferably with an adjoining hotel, remains the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s top wish.

Weaver and Reist said the bureau must hire a consultant to ensure the city builds what it can support and encourages hotel growth.

“That’s the first thing we need to do, determine what we need, not what we want,” Weaver said, noting the addition of the Westin in Huntsville and Marriott Conference Center in Florence will impact what Decatur can achieve

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