On Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, Columbia County’s Wildwood Park will play host to the inaugural Wildwood Games, an outdoor sports event that county leaders hope will become a benchmark weekend of athletic competition every bit as noteworthy as others in the area.
But is Columbia County striving for greatness or simply riding the coattails of Richmond County’s success?
This year’s Wildwood Games features mountain bike and trail running races, but officials have a much grander vision for future weekends. They hope the Wildwood Games will become something of a destination event the way Augusta’s Ironman has.
In the short term, the Wildwood Games will be built around the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships, which the county secured for 2015 and 2016. This year’s races can be considered a trial run, and eventually, the Wildwood Games will expand to include water events.
The Ironman comparisons are obvious. While the homespun Wildwood Games are a far cry from the slick sophistication of the Ironman, they do share many similarities. The same type of committed athletes. The same kind of community atmosphere. The same sense of spectacle. And, organizers hope, the same kind of rewards.
When Augusta put on its first successful Ironman event 2009, it represented a turning point, vaulting Augusta quite a few rungs up the desirability ladder. And because of pretty much flawless execution and phenomenal participation numbers, it gave Augusta something other than the Masters and James Brown to be proud of.
Think about it – what else goes on around here other than the Ironman that has near universal approval?
It’s worth far more than a self congratulatory pat on the back, however. According to the Augusta Sports Council, it has generated more than $16 million in economic impact, all while promoting Augusta as a destination rather than a stopover, a place to go rather than a place to go through.
Hoping to take a page out of Augusta’s playbook, Columbia County hired one of the people who helped write it.
Randy DuTeau left the Augusta Sports Council in Oct. of 2012 to head up the Columbia County’s CVB, which had been working without an executive director since Beda Johnson resigned the previous October. DuTeau’s sports background played into one of Columbia County’s strengths – recreation venues.
Though he didn’t help create these places – the latest, the BMX track, was approved just before he signed on – the county has been using its venues to target big ticket athletic events for years, most notably by using its mega boat ramps to host major bass fishing tournaments from both premier professional tours and later by custom fitting their previously existing Blanchard Woods soccer park to win the NCAA Div. II Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships.
Utilizing the county’s flagship park, the 975-acre gem that’s home to the International Disc Golf Center and Hall of Fame, 61 camp sites and the 6-lane mega boat ramps, DuTeau is able to capitalize on what Augusta doesn’t have – a single outdoor sports area. While a logistical advantage, the centralized nature of the Wildwood Games, as well as any events put on at Wildwood, come with disadvantages, too, specifically the inability to thoroughly capitalize on the built in economic opportunities that Augusta enjoys with its downtown events. There isn’t as much bleed over. They might get the hotel stays, but they miss the sense of community involvement that comes with closed streets and bustling downtowns.
The mountain bike races are 31-miles and 62-miles and the trail running races go up to 50k. The route, like the bike course for the Ironman, is long and challenging for safety crews, covering approximately 90 miles through state, federal and privately-owned land, starting and ending at the grassy parking area within Wildwood Park, which is where the expo will be located.
Even if DuTeau is encroaching on Augusta’s bread and butter, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for either community, given the regional approach both governments have begun to adopt. Richmond County officials, including Walter Sprouse at the Richmond County Economic Development Authority and Brinsley Thigpen at the Sports Council, have preached about transparent borders for a long time, and of course mayor Deke Copenhaver created the Augusta Regional Collaboration project with the idea that what’s good for one is good for all.
By snatching DuTeau and Robbie Bennett, a project manager for Richmond County’s Development Authority who now serves as Columbia County’s Development Authority director, Columbia County obviously feels similarly inclined, which makes even more sense when you’re a part of a region and not the main attraction. No matter how big and powerful Columbia Count gets, nobody is ever going to enter into the “airplane conversation” saying they’re from Columbia County. They will always be from Augusta.
But the more venues Columbia County builds, the more it’s going to be able to piggy back off of Augusta’s notoriety and the more the associated economic opportunities will be blended. Columbia County seems now to understand that what it lacks in stature it can more than make up for with proximity and preparedness.
Augusta has the river, Columbia County has the lake. Augusta has the downtown, Columbia County has the wooded trails. Augusta has the name, Columbia County has the venues to compliment it.
Augusta will always be the Lone Ranger to Columbia County’s Tonto, but Columbia County should probably get a little credit for realizing how to prosper as a sidekick.