Sports complex could breathe new life into Swannanoa

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Long-time youth sports supporter Carl Bartlett holds a schematic of a youth sports complex that he and others are proposing for the old Beacon site, behind him.

Swannanoa, a community that was once the world’s largest producer of blankets, may once again boast another superlative - home of the region’s largest indoor youth sports complex.

Last week, a group of Valley residents commissioned a study on the feasibility of a 15-acre sports complex on the site of the old Beacon Manufacturing plant. Organizers hope to help the Valley capture a bit of the $10 billion youth sports tourism industry. And they hope to bring life to Swannanoa, a once-thriving community that supported its industrial league sports teams as much as it depended on its mill.

Parents of children in youth sport travel leagues spend several weekends – and thousands of dollars – on the road each year in hopes of furthering their children’s skills and possibly attracting the notice of a college recruiter. Cities like Myrtle Beach have responded by building multi-million sports facilities that AAU leagues rent for weekend tournaments and clinics. Westfield, Indiana has one of the largest youth sports facilities in the world – 400 acres of baseball diamonds, soccer fields and indoor basketball fields.

In an architect's drawing, there is parking for 483 cars and room for a 100,000-square-foot building.

The one that Swannanoa organizers envision is much more humble. Modeled on a $14.5 million indoor complex in Myrtle Beach, it is proposed to house 8-10 basketball courts in a 100,000-square-foot building that could also be used by volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics and cheer groups. With parking for more than 400 cars, it could draw people from Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, organizers believe.

And as with the conference centers in the Valley, every weekend a new batch of visitors would come in.

Families supporting their athletes would spend big bucks in Swannanoa-Black Mountain-Asheville motels, restaurants and shops, giving Swannanoa an economic lift it hasn’t experienced since the Beacon plant closed in 2002, said Black Mountain resident Carl Bartlett, a retired banker and long-time Valley youth sports supporter.

“This would be a good economic engine for the Swannanoa Valley,” he said last week. “It will create some jobs, even part-time jobs.” Bartlett envisions a booming commercial area on Whitson Avenue, which would connect the complex to U.S. 70 and Interstate 40.

“That area (Swannanoa) has been identified as needing economic development, and a project like this spurs additional types of development that are good jobs creators,” said Stephanie Brown, president of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“This is an exciting prospect from the tourism and community perspectives,” she said. “These sports complexes give our local kids excellent opportunities to engage in their sports and also to play teams from outside the area. These athletes bring a lot of parents and family who enjoy the area, so visitor spending is distributed evenly throughout the county.”

In many ways, the Beacon site is deal, Bartlett said. It’s level, doesn’t need a lot of site preparation and is easily visible from I-40, he said. Because of “brownfield” site rehabilitation tax credits (Beacon used contaminants in its manufacturing process), a company might be enticed to become an underwriting partner with the non-profit entity that would run the facility, Bartlett said. The Community Reinvestment Act’s requirement that banks meet the credit needs of communities they operate in might prompt a bank to make construction loans.

HBO’s “Real Sports” show reports that youth sports tourism is a $10 billion industry in the U.S. The segment of the travel industry has created “an unprecedented sports tourism boom,” the show claims. Some parents spend hundreds of dollars on a so-called “tourna-cation,” a vacation built around their children’s tournament.  

It’s some of that market that the Valley group is hoping to attract. They likely would, some people think.

“They would easily be able to rent a facility like that out every week from the begin of March through October,” said Don Ledford, vice president of AAU operations Team Carolina, which puts together non-scholastic teams and weekend competition for students in grades 2-11, including teams in Asheville. “And in winter, you could do volleyball and wrestling.”

Ledford is also state director of the United States Basketball Association. The tournaments USBA runs every weekend March-July in the Raleigh area attract 50-100 teams. National tournament it holds in Charlotte draw 400-500 teams. The economic impact on those areas is huge, he said.

“You’re easily spending $300-$400” per family on those weekends, Ledford said. A basketball complex in the Valley would draw teams from north Georgia, east Tennessee and Piedmont North Carolina, he said. “If (Swannanoa) had one, we’d be trying to use it to run tournaments up there,” he said.

But it would take financial support from the local municipality or tourism development authority, he said. Bartlett said the group of organizers – he, local real estate agent Chip Craig, and a few Valley residents and others who want to remain anonymous right now – have met with the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, as well as the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, county commissioners, the town of Black Mountain and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry’s office. All have been supportive, Bartlett said.

There’s nothing like the project in Western North Carolina, Bartlett said. The closest, in Myrtle Beach, is locaated in an area noted for tourism and attractions, as is Swannanoa. The $13.8 million Myrtle Beach Sports Center, a 100,000-square-foot indoor facility that also hosts shows and conventions, is expected to generate about $28.4 million annually in visitor spending by 2020, according to a Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce figure cited by The Sun News in Myrtle Beach.

Swannanoa, a thriving village community when Beacon Manufacturing was there, has declined since the mill closed more than a decade ago. The 1 million-square-foot company building burned over the course of three days in 2003, a year after the plant closed. The fire, sparked by an arsonist, ended the company’s 80-year run in Swannanoa, a run that began in 1923 when Charles Owen purchased a large tract of land in the valley and relocated his blanket factory from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The mill employed as many as 2,200 people.

Last September, neighbors of the 40-acre Beacon site received letters notifying them that contaminants at the “brownfield” property had been cleaned up to the state Department of Environmental Quality’s satisfaction, clearing the way for its two owners to sell it.

If everything falls into place and the sports project gets the greenlight – something not likely to happen for at least a year, Bartlett said – organizers expect it to be profitable in its third year.

Perhaps more important, a sports complex might help Swannanoa regain some of the pride it had when it was under the Beacon blanket. “You would not believe how it was when Beacon maintained the village,” Bartlett said. “We had a ballpark, a baseball team and men and women’s basketball teams in the industrial league. The village was well-maintained. It was a thriving community. And we think it can be again.”

Sports Facilities Advisors of Clearwater, Florida is doing the feasibility study. The $40,000 for the study commissioned last week was raised through donations and grants money, Bartlett said.