With construction now underway at Columbia County’s $1.5 million BMX track and skatepark at Blanchard Woods Park, county officials still find themselves explaining how something so seemingly radical ended up in Columbia County.
“It’s going to definitely cater to a whole different segment of the citizens,” says Community and Leisure Services Director Barry Smith. “We’re trying to make facilities and venues for everybody, for all different types of people.”
The new facility, which comes after considerable support from the area’s vocal skating community, is being constructed behind the stadium soccer field at Blanchard Woods Park, and though it seems like a recent addition, the concept has been part of the park’s master plan since 2005.
Blanchard Woods is 150 acres, only 35 of which have been developed.
During the last round of SPLOST projects, Smith requested five additional soccer fields that were also part of the master plan, but the commission turned him down, choosing to fund the BMX track and skatepark instead.
“My main issue was that I wanted those soccer fields and I didn’t want money spent on this,” Smith says, admitting the soccer fields would have cost significantly more. But he insists his opposition wasn’t because of the facility itself, but because of how it would fit, or rather not fit, into his programming.
“The way I’ve always operated, you go by need,” he says. “Our soccer program keeps growing and the need for additional soccer fields is paramount. A skate park is not part of recreational programming, and you can’t sign up for BMX.”
Smith plans to include those additional soccer fields in the next round of SPLOST projects, which will be formulated this summer and put on the ballot in November.
Though much of the early attention has come from skateboard enthusiasts eager for a new venue, the $900,000 BMX track is the component officials say offers the chance to make a financial return on their investment. Because it’s being developed under the eye of USA BMX, the national governing body for the sport of bicycle motocross, chances are high that the track will soon be hosting national events.
Randy DuTeau, the executive director of Columbia County’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, submitted a bid May 1 to host a national series event starting in 2015. Such an event, likely to run for three years consecutive years, would bring in 1,000-1,500 athletes and, along with them, the room nights and retail sales that help fund the county.
The bid results will be announced in July, a couple of months before the park opens.
“Based on the discussions we’ve had, we’re reasonably certain that we will get an event,” DuTeau says. “If that’s the case, it would be cool, because we’ll be able to announce before the track is even built that we’ve got this national series race coming to town. That will be pretty significant for us, I think.”
To help ensure the track is up to standards, Smith required a USA BMX track developer be included in the construction process.
DuTeau thinks being able to announce the event early will go a long way toward alleviating whatever worries locals might have about spending more than a million dollars to appeal to such a select community. Since they will be able to see just how many people are part of that select community — and how much money they’re bringing with them — they’ll see what a significant financial impact the venues can have right out of the gate.
“If you have 1,500 people at a national event like that, you’re going to generate awareness in 50,000 people,” he says.
Though Augusta has a BMX track, DuTeau says it’s not equipped to host national events.
DuTeau expects the impact of such events to be easier to quantify than the NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships, which the county hosted for the last two years.
“With the soccer tournaments, you can look at each team and know they’re going to come in with 15 athletes and they’re going to have three coaches, so you know they’re going to require x number of rooms for x number of days,” he says. “So we know going into the event specifically how many rooms they’re going to need, but it’s really hard to quantify all the kids who are going to hop on the bus and come over from the college for the week or the number of parents who come, because they’re all over the place.”
But at the end of the day, he says, USA BMX will be able to say, based on their registrations, how many unique athletes they’re bringing along with how many staff members. After that, it’s about driving through the hotel parking lots and counting the bike racks.
Because skateboarding is a different kind of sport, DuTeau says he won’t be able to directly target events the way he can with the BMX track.
“I think in a lot of ways, we’ll have to market the skate park as an attraction the way you might market FATS or Bartram Trail or any of those types of facilities where people can show up and do their thing,” he says. “It’s not as easy to quantify, but when you drive through the parking lot and see all the different license plates, you know what you’ve done.”
He admits it’s not typically the type of thing you might expect in Columbia County, but he says the influx of people coming in from other places who are looking for these kinds of recreational opportunities makes it an appealing attraction to provide. While locals might be thinking, “Wow — isn’t it great to have this?” people considering relocating to the CSRA are thinking “Look — they’ve got what we have!”
“While I’m trying to sell our community to people who are going to come and go, at the same time, we’ve got to sell it to the locals and to other folks,” DuTeau says. “If it’s good enough for people to come in for a weekend, then hopefully it’s going to be good enough for the people who are going to come here and live.”
Ultimately, no matter how many outside events or visitors something like this attracts, it’s got to appeal to the local population.
“We’re using taxpayer money to build this,” DuTeau says. “People want to know that there is going to be some type of return on investment, and part of that return is through usage.”
Both Smith and DuTeau have heard the doubters, who say the small community won’t support such a venue, especially since other area skate parks have closed because of poor attendance. But both counter with the argument that quality should win out. The skate park will be constructed by Pillar Design Studio, one of the top skate park design companies in the nation, and it will be made entirely of poured concrete, with no modular construction whatsoever, which will prevent the maintenance issues and sidestep the design flaws of Augusta’s former skate park on Damascus Road, which closed in 2008 from lack of attendance spurred by safety issues resulting from its shoddy construction.
Smith says he’s more worried about the BMX bikes riding on the skate course than anything else.
According to Kent Kilpatrick, internal services division administrator for Athens-Clarke County, such a worry is unfounded. Athens has had a skate park for the last 10 years that caters to both skaters and BMX riders, and he says that not only do they coexist, they thrive.
Athens had a similar history with its skate park. Members of the skating community had been making do with a makeshift park constructed with homemade wooden ramps that was located on a piece of private land located downtown. But when an accident convinced the property owner to no longer allow the skaters access to his land, they turned to the local government to provide them with a safe place that wouldn’t go away.
“When they came to me for advice, I told them they had to sell their elected officials,” Kilpatrick says.
So not only did skaters go to the commission meeting, they greeted arriving commissioners by skating in front of City Hall.
Interest was so great, that the public raised between $30,000 and $40,000 which the city added to its own $150,000. The city then hired an Oregon company called Grindline Skateparks to design and build it, which turned out to be an adventure in itself.
“Basically, they just sat around and met with the skaters and asked them what they wanted to see,” Kilpatrick says. “There was never a single plan put on paper. They’d start digging and pouring concrete and they’d go as far as the money would last.”
Governments don’t always work well with such loose reins, he says.
“Our purchasing department and finance department and the manager’s office were very reluctant.”
But the result has been a skate park that has satisfied the local skaters who called for it and those skaters from other communities who have traveled to experience it.
Though Kilpatrick says they don’t track the number of users, he says attendance has been consistently positive.
“I can tell you just from my own experience that on a slow day we have anywhere from 30 to 50 skaters,” he says. “On the weekend, you’ll see car tags from South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee. We see a lot of people who skate the circuit and travel around and cover these places.”
As for the safety concerns and worries that such a place could draw additional problems, he says the community has done a good job of self policing.
“We told them that if it becomes a place where there’s truancy during school, or if there are drugs and alcohol and people causing problems — this place is going to be shut down and it won’t stand a chance,” Kilpatrick says.
Columbia County’s park is expected to open in early fall, and DuTeau is excited about the rollout. He says he’s hoping that the sports marketing firm they’ve hired to manage the fledgling Wildwood Games, a high-powered company that has been involved with the X Games, will also manage the rollout of the park in order to give it the biggest possible exposure.
“This is going to be a nice facility,” he says. “You can’t build a million dollar-plus facility and have a grand opening with pop up tents and hot dogs. It needs to be pretty spectacular. So if we have this opportunity and we’re going to be able to capture this audience, then we need to give it some serious punch.”