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Tourism home run: Columbus steps up to plate, attracts 1.8 million visitors

mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

The way Clay Dickey sees it, Columbus is -- hands down -- the only place he and his athletes want to be.

That's a great thing, considering over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, there will be up to 8,000 people visiting Columbus to participate in Dickey's Black Softball Circuit competition or watch the players in action.

That equates to 150 teams filling about 1,200 hotel rooms across the city for an economic impact topping $1 million. And that doesn't include the family members, friends and spectators who might accompany the large contingent.

"We are the only association of our size that does not put these events out to bid to other cities because of the reception that Columbus gives us, and the hospitality. You can't put a price tag on that," Dickey, chief executive officer of Tallahassee, Fla.-based BSC Softball Inc., said Friday.

The major event comes with visitation to the city increasing from 1.7 million in fiscal year 2014 to 1.8 million in fiscal year 2015, which ended June 30, according to the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, citing numbers compiled by Columbus State University's Butler Center for Business and Economic Development.

The people visiting the city for tourism, business meetings, conferences, reunions and military graduations spent about $340 million overall in the last year, the data show. That inflow of cash contributed to 4,477 jobs with a payroll of more than $119 million, nearly $27,000 per position.

The impact also rippled to the city, its citizens and the state. That included generating $18.6 million in sales and lodging taxes for Columbus and $15 million in sales taxes for Georgia. That money, in turn, helped provide public services for the city. Without the cash, each local household would have had to pay an extra $533 to make up the difference for the same services, the CSU analysis said.

All of those numbers are up from fiscal year 2014, with the exception of the overall spending. Visitors actually shelled out more that year -- $348 million -- than the $340 million in the most recent 12-month period.

"That could be because they're spending more money getting here," Columbus CVB President and CEO Peter Bowden said of travelers to the city. "It could be they're being more frugal in their spending while they're here, eating at less expensive restaurants and that sort of thing."

The concern, he said, would be if it is taking more visitors simply to maintain the current economic impact numbers. If that trend continues, it could require the need for more resources to market and promote the city to groups, organizations and everyday travelers, he said.

But overall, Bowden pointed out, the current impact figures are strong. One specific figure he noted from the analysis is that the roughly 5,100 people visiting Columbus any given day are spending a collective $69,000 daily just on arts, entertainment and recreation.

"That's really an indication of how strong those venues are in Columbus," he said. "That would be museums, whitewater, performances at the Springer (Opera House), those kinds of places."

The CVB chief said anything connected to the outdoors is big right now in Columbus. That includes the Chattahoochee River whitewater and zip line courses, the RiverWalk itself, a plethora of running competitions and, of course, the sporting events that draw various levels of athletes to South Commons, home of the Summer Olympic softball games in 1996.

"That's our biggest venue as far as economic impact. The South Commons softball complex doubles the next closest venue," said David Boyd, event manager with the Columbus Sports Council, which promoted 164 events in fiscal year 2015 at nearly three dozen city venues, generating an economic impact of about $16.3 million. South Commons was responsible for nearly a third of that. Overall, the council helped bring in more than 50,000 participants citywide last year, with total attendance approaching a quarter of a million people.

A key to that success, Boyd said, is developing a close relationship with groups and organizations after they've made the decision to play in the city the first time.

"We have some events that we have long-term relationships with and we've cultivated that into almost a family atmosphere for us," he said. "If I've had your event for five years, there's nothing to it. It goes on autopilot and we just make sure we keep ahead of the curve and are doing the things we need to do to keep that event. It's about hospitality. It's about offering a total package. We can run the whole thing for you. We can do volunteers. We can run social media. It's just doing what we have to do to make the customer happy."

The pitch for prospective sporting events also includes letting promoters and organizers know off the bat what the city has to offer when the athletes are not competing, said Boyd. For example, perhaps another city competing with Columbus has similar or equal playing fields and facilities.

"We've got so many great things like the (National) Infantry Museum, the RiverWalk and whitewater rafting," he said. "I can break the tie with whitewater rafting because I can package it and turn it into a destination, more than just a tournament."

That's the case if the sports council is courting an event such as the upcoming Georgia State High School Softball Championships, which will take place here at the end of October, with 1,100 participants and 56 teams, or events such as those overseen by Dickey.

The promoter said the Black Softball Circuit World Series this weekend is bringing competitors from 32 states, with three-quarters of them driving in rather than flying. It is so large that the event will use both South Commons -- where there is plenty of shade and parking -- as well as Benning Park.

There will be fierce play on the fields mixed with plenty of tailgating in the parking lot and visits to various Columbus eateries, supermarkets, retail stores and gas stations, Dickey said.

"Some people will get there on Thursday and some will stay over to Monday on the (Labor Day) holiday," he said. "They love hanging out in the parking lot. They do movies and bowling and stuff like that on Friday and Saturday night, and go out and find a restaurant and eat together. It's a bonding thing."

Here are the fiscal year 2015 Columbus visitation data released by the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau:

• Total visitors [--] 1.8 million

• Economic impact [--] $340 million

• Jobs supported [--] 4,477

• Job payroll generated [--] $119 million

• Columbus lodging/sales tax revenue [--] $18.6 million

• Georgia sales tax revenue [--] $15 million

* Source: Columbus State University’s Butler Center for Business and Economic Research

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