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Sports Commission sees untapped potential in Gwinnett

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Stan Hall, the Sports Commissionis newly appointed director, talks about the plans to bring major sporting events to Gwinnett County over the coming years.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Stan Hall, the Sports Commissionis newly appointed director, talks about the plans to bring major sporting events to Gwinnett County over the coming years.

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File Photo In this 2007 file photo, spectators head to the 18th hole at the AT&T Classic at the TPC at Sugarloaf.

DULUTH -- In the Gwinnett Sports Commission's plans for maximizing the county's potential as a sports mecca, it's not difficult to spot the Big Kahuna, in terms of economic impact and general fanaticism.

By as early as spring 2013, tourism officials hope to bring PGA golf back to Sugarloaf County Club, likely without a title sponsor. The nationally televised, Champions Tour event would span three or four days on the course that hosted the AT&T Classic until 2008, known for a decade prior to that as the BellSouth Classic.

The competitors might be a bit grayer, and the funding sources to cover the $4 million price tag more crafty, but officials at the Sports Commission, a branch of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, are confident it can happen. Interest from the PGA, which owns the course, has been high, leaders say.

A 2003 study pegged the tournament's annual impact at roughly $15 million, which would have equalled about 2 percent of the county's entire tourism revenue in 2010.

The PGA event joins a slate of possible sporting events that could spell a windfall for area businesses while boosting tourism taxes. It's part of the Sports Commission's rejuvenated focus to pull in more sports crowds, in addition to those who gather in Gwinnett for everything from bull riding to street hockey.

Lisa Anders, GCVB executive director, said the commission is expected to bring 45 sports-related events to Gwinnett this year, up from 35 last year. The focus is on multi-day events or expanding existing events, she said.

Gwinnett counted more than 2.5 million tourists in 2010, who contributed $26 million in tax revenue, but the bulk of those were business travelers.

"People all over the country have started to realize the importance of the sports marketing business," said Stan Hall, the Sports Commission's newly appointed director. "The one market that hasn't suffered is the sports industry."

As for the PGA event, Hall said a foundation comprised of business and other leaders is being created to be the driving force for culling sponsorships for the tourney. Instead of a title sponsor -- a tough get in a sluggish economy -- the idea is to pool together several "tier-two" sponsors.

"We want everything to be inside the county. We've already approached 10 corporations inside the county, including new businesses that are coming and Fortune 500 companies here," Hall said. "Over the next two or three months, we hope to hit every single one."

With an upgraded slate of venues in recent years, GCVB CEO Preston Williams said tourism leaders are trying to harness the potential for sports revenue like never before.

"There's a lot of things on the drawing board right now. Some will, and some won't, come to pass," Williams said. "We think we have a lot of possibilities that we haven't explored like we should have. It's a bit different in that we're being a little more aggressive."

Hall said the revamped golf tournament would be modeled after another spring Champions Tour stop -- the Regions Tradition, held since 1992 at the Shoal Creek course outside Birmingham.

The suburban demographics around that course are similar to TPC at Sugarloaf, and both courses are girded by large homes and carry a somewhat rural allure, said David Galbaugh, director of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham CVB.

Birmingham officials conservatively estimate that tourney's impact at $28 million.

"Our hotels definitely love this event, and it carries over to our restaurants and attractions," Galbaugh said. "It's a good, clean investment, too. People come in, they spend their money and they leave. It's awesome for us."

Hall thinks Gwinnett's demographics would support a seniors tour event, with no impact on the TOUR Championship at East Lake. "Most of the names I recognize are on that (Champions) tour now," he said.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said hotel/motel taxes and fees paid by visitors represent a win-win for residents and government leaders. That revenue offsets costs otherwise paid by Gwinnett taxpayers, while visitors have a limited effect on service demands, such as local schools.

She pointed to the county's nationally recognized parks system, sports facilities and mild climate as key selling points.

"Not many areas can compete with the array of convenient, top-notch sports facilities and venues that Gwinnett offers," Nash said.

Other Sports Commission objectives range from major boxing qualifiers to college baseball tourneys, but all seek to capitalize on Gwinnett's existing sports infrastructure. Here's a rundown:

BOXING: Gwinnett officials entered talks recently with the U.S. Boxing Association to host Olympic trials in Gwinnett's 50,000-square-foot convention center. Plans are preliminary, but the tourney would represent the last opportunity for amateur boxers to make the Olympic team, Hall said. "They saw us as a location that would be prime," he said. "We've never had a true boxing event here in Gwinnett County."

GLADIATORS, G-BRAVES, FORCE: Said Hall, "We're trying to see what we can do to bring people back to the Arena and Coolray Field, to try to fill those seats up." The commission plans to partner with Gladiators, Georgia Force and Gwinnett Braves marketing teams in an effort to boost attendance. Gladiators attendance tallies show a slight seasonal dip (16,000 fewer attendees from 200,100 two years ago), while Hall said Force fans were jilted by the league's hiatus.

Uproar over $64 million spent by county officials to build Coolray Stadium, coupled with attendance that saw only about half of the stadium's 10,000 seats filled on average last year, left a pall on that venue, leaving the Braves in the lower third of attendance in AAA baseball.

On a positive note, Nash said 2011 revenues designated for debt service on the stadium -- such as revenues from the stadium itself and rental car tax -- exceeded the amount owed.

NCAA's SEC, ACC EVENTS: In April, the NCAA gymnastics championships will take over the Arena. Hall said negotiations are under way to bring the ACC's baseball tournament to Coolray Field. "It would be 2014 before there's even an opening, it's booked so far in advance," he said. SEC women's basketball tournaments are inked for the Arena in 2013 and 2014. Other events involve Division II schools, including an Atlantic Sun Conference golf tournament at Chateau Elan in April. Coolray Field is currently hosting the Southern Classic, a showcase tourney for four local university teams.TECH 'HOME' GAMES: Home games for Georgia Tech men's and women's basketball conclude with a women's contest at the Arena today. Anders said the economic impact of those games is still being tallied. The dividends could be residual. "It's really fostered a relationship with the ACC that we hope will bode well for our bid to bring the ACC baseball tournament out here," Hall said.

PREP ATHLETICS: The state men's wrestling championships, as well as both girl's and boy's basketball championships, will be held in Gwinnett this year, Hall said.

VOLLEYBALL: In January, 120 teams competed at a girls volleyball tourney at the Arena, most from outside Atlanta, Hall said. An economic impact hasn't been tabulated, but Anders said hotel occupancy rose 10 percent during that long weekend.

GONE FISHING: The Forrest Wood Cup fishing tournament makes its return to Gwinnett in August, after a successful showing in 2010. Anders said 50,000 people visited the fishing Expo at Gwinnett center and another 10,000 attended the fish weigh-in at the Arena. "It really put us on the map for this type of event," she said.