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Tourism destination?: Port Arthur mayor eyes youth sports tournaments

Mayor Derrick Freeman suggests the road to Port Arthur’s recovery might rest in more play time.

Freeman recently alluded to youth sports tourism — he was talking about this city hosting baseball, softball and soccer touraments, he said — as an opportunity for the city to cash in on a growing segment of the market. He backed that up this week before the City Council with the presentation of a video on sports tourism.

There’s a second component to that, too, he said — by building better parks, Port Arthur can offer improved recreational facilities here that could enhance youth sports for the city’s own children.

“Our parks are in need of help,” he said. “I think we are overstretched with 33 parks in the city. It might be better to do something with excellence on a grand scale. We can use that to bring economic development to the city.”

Talking it up

To that end, Freeman said, he has met with such involved partners as city staff, planning director Ron Burton, parks and recreation personnel and with Dr. Albert Thigpen, former human resources and parks director, who is consulting on securing grant money for parks and recreation projects. He said he’ll meet with Tammy Kotzur, executive director of the Port Arthur Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well.

He’s also talked with representatives of Save the Children, the century-old organization that promotes children’s rights and welfare. Houston Texan football star J.J. Watt, who raised some $37 million to help assist Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey victims recover, has allocated a substantial portion of that money to Save the Children.

Freeman says Port Arthur has access to some suitable land for parks and facilities that might lure sports tournaments here, especially if they can be developed. That includes sites at Staff Sgt. Lucian Adams Park, near Memorial High School; at Pioneer Park, near Christus Southeast Texas St. Mary’s; and at County Park in Port Acres.

There’s more, too, he said: Wouldn’t Pleasure Island, with the Intracoastal Canal and the city as a backdrop, be a great place for a baseball tournament? And, “I’d love to see a beach volleyball tournament on Pleasure Island.”

Raise the bar

What’s needed, Freeman said, is to raise the level of excellence in facilities. Several premier sports sites would mean the chance to spread economic opportunity around the city, he said.

“We have the capacity to handle folks in the hotels,” he said. “If you attract a tournament with 200 teams, 20 players on a team, that’s 4,000 people in the city. They’ve got to eat, got to shop a little.”

Tammy Kotzur, executive director of the Port Arthur Convention and Visitors Bureau, said youth sports tournaments are a “valid part” of tourism. She said the bureau promotes what the city has to offer, but sometimes that leaves Port Arthur behind other markets with more developed facilities.

Port Arthur, she said, has pursued or hosted some sports tourism — fishing, bowling, a little soccer, youth football — but lacks the facilities for hosting large tournaments for team sports like softball or soccer. That’s where the money is.

You need product

“You really have to have a good product,” she said, in order to compete regionally and nationally for hosting sports events. She said going to trade shows is “extremely expensive” and you need to be able to vie for tournaments in several sports.

“There is a lot of competition. Before, not many cities had complexes,” she said. Now you need to have facilities, concession stands, proximity to hotels, the right price for fields and an ample number of fields.

“You need a niche market,” she said. Port Arthur has a civic center, which can host some smaller competitions, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau has been pursuing sports events for those.

She said when it comes to building new facilities, though, there is a cost involved in building and in maintaining facilities. “I don’t see that going away,” she said.

Kotzur said she’d be happy to help with the development of facilities, although the motel/hotel tax, which funds tourism promotions, can’t be used for building facilities.

Seeking grants

Thigpen has been writing grant applications seeking facilities money. He and Freeman both suggest that as hard as Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey damaged Port Arthur in 2017, the city may be in line for acquiring substantial grants.

He said he’s working hard on a grant application to Save the Children, which will be submitted within a few weeks. He said Save the Children approached the city, and the organization is interested in funding projects that would help children here.

Freeman said he and the City Council are both interested in that.

He said many Port Arthur children live in poverty, and can’t afford to travel out of region or state to pricy sports tournaments. But if the fields were here, and the tournaments follow, they might find their opportunities for sports competition right at home.

Likewise, he said, a substantial percentage of Port Arthur’s population is Hispanic, and grow up playing soccer. Yet the city is short on standard sized soccer fields. Building premier facilities would serve the local youth.

Much will depend on securing grants, on careful planning, on using Port Arthur’s assets to its advantage. Building parks and pursuing sports tournaments can’t get in the way of improving city infrastructure and repairing roads, Freeman said.

But Port Arthur needs to create its own opportunities, he said.

“Hopefully, we can become a destination,” he said. “Port Arthur has numerous champions. We breed champions.”