“There had been a proposal for a new recreation center in place for probably the last 20 years,” says City of Albertville Mayor Tracy Honea. “Once we came [into office], it became evident fairly quickly that we wanted to expand beyond what had formerly been discussed. We went BIG. Way bigger than what we previously envisioned.”
There’s a dramatic shift in how sports facilities impact communities taking place across the country. There may be no better example of this movement than in Albertville, Alabama, part of Marshall County. The city, with a population of 26,000 people, is home to Sand Mountain Park & Amphitheater, a 130-acre, state-of-the-art complex that provides elite-level athletic facilities, family-friendly public recreational spaces, and live entertainment. The facility, operated on the city’s behalf by a third-party management firm, Sports Facilities Companies, includes everything from racquet sports courts to diamond and long fields, an aquatic center, an outdoor water park, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, event spaces, dog parks, an RV park, a fitness center, a 5,000-plus capacity amphitheater, and more. The venue represents the newest evolution in sports travel destinations, but just as importantly, it was designed and built by and for the local community with the mission of improving the health and economic vitality of the Sand Mountain region. Since its opening in 2020, the project has been a resounding success on all fronts. In 2021, the park hosted more than 75 large-scale sports events and concerts that generated an economic impact of $14.2 million for Marshall County. In 2022, Sand Mountain hosted over 100 events, and the economic impact for the county climbed to $23.2 million.
“While we’re the largest city in Marshall County, with 23,000-24,000 people, we didn’t even have a Walmart. This may not sound like a big deal, but from a retail stance, we were struggling. If you’re trying to recruit retail, it’s easy to recruit next to or across from Walmart. Adding sports tourism was a tool. During the planning process, it became evident that if we did enough of the right things, it would drive new economic development,” Honea explains.
Image courtesy of SoFly Productions
The intent in creating SMPA was to do something for the community— particularly for the youth. The key to the project’s success would be to strike a balance between the local community’s needs and the travel sports teams and other visitors who would want to utilize the venue.
“The original vision was to [serve] our community, but mixed in with that, when we decided to move as big as we did, there had to be the economic impact in order to pay for it,” Honea says. Sand Mountain Park & Amphitheater was funded through a one percent increase in sales tax. Along with funding for the construction of the park, the sales tax increase funded several capital improvements.
The time frame from concept to fruition for SMPA spanned about seven years, and the city made a point of involving a lot of sectors of the community—including coaches, businesspeople, and others— in the development. “From the time we broke ground, it was about a two-anda-half-year build process,” says Honea. “There were a lot of challenges. We ran into everything from hitting rock to dealing with COVID to dealing with two of the rainiest seasons we’ve had in our history. But hard work pays off. There were relentless efforts made by lots of folks.”
As Honea alluded to, with a project the size and scope of SMPA, there were bound to be hurdles. “Budget was always an issue, and construction throughout the process was an issue,” recalls Honea. “Throughout all of the challenges that came our way, we collectively maintained a can-do attitude. [Regarding construction], we, fortunately, finished this project just as rates were beginning to escalate on materials.” Of course, the real lesson here doesn’t lie in the challenges themselves but in how the community responded and dealt with the difficulties. “There wasn’t one rock star that made all this happen—everybody came together when it mattered,” says Mike Brewer, director of human resources for the City of Albertville. “When it was game time, and we were in the heat of the battle, everybody pulled together. There was a great sense of community during construction and during the process, and all of the challenges we faced became manageable because of that.”
Image courtesy of Chambliss King Architects
SMPA’s impact on tourism and development in Albertville has been indisputable. “We’ve got something here that brings folks in from out of town — a lot of weekends out of the year. It’s helped us,” says Honea. “We’ve got two hotels. One is open, and the other is about to open, and we’ve had several retail projects that have landed. The hotels and some of our new restaurants wouldn’t be here had the park not been built.”
Honea and his visionary city team haven’t stopped imagining the future of the park: there are still a few opportunities for further expansion of SMPA. “We pretty well went all in with the idea from the start,” he says. “Sand Mountain Park isn’t maxed out, but we’re in year three, and we’re looking at some potential things that we could either add, change, or do to draw more people.
There’s talk about adding on to the water park, and there’s space if we choose to do that.” This year, the team added a temporary ice-skating rink to maximize off-peak usage of their amphitheater. They went big again – it’s the largest outdoor real ice rink in Northern Alabama.
While Honea is happy about what SMPA has already done for Albertville, he is also excited about what the park will do for the entire region. He points out that North Alabama is very scenic, and there is a plethora of outdoor activities at nearby lakes, rivers, and mountains. “[The area] gets quite a bit of tourism through bass fishing and water sports, and our state parks have hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. I think as we move forward, Sand Mountain Park will [serve many people]. Our vision is that this isn’t only for Albertville but for the entire North Alabama region. It’s already drawing folks to come and stay a little longer and explore all we have to offer,” he says.
Image courtesy of SoFly Productions
One of the best things about SMPA, in Honea’s and Brewer’s view, is that it provides an everincreasing menu of activities for community members. “You can go out there any night of the week; the basketball courts outside are full, people are walking the trail, and the dog park is packed. There are so many aspects of the park for the community, and that’s before you get into all the programming available,” Honea remarks. “That’s the beauty of the original concept— its ability to cater to all the needs of our community while simultaneously showing off our area to visitors and sports events. If anything, I think the community aspect may increase over time with more amenities. We’ve constantly got our eye on improving the value to the area.”
Honea continues, “There’s a health and wellness aspect this community has not had [prior to Sand Mountain Park]. We now have a top-notch facility that people can benefit from; an improved quality of life is one of the biggest things that the park has brought to the community.”
Just as crucially, says Brewer, SMPA has helped to build a local sense of pride. “It’s renewed our belief in the great qualities of this area. When you have a town that’s fired up and excited, and everybody is getting along, it’s a great feeling to be a part of all of it,” he explains. “We all are sharing in the pride and sense of accomplishment that it’s brought, whether economically or through quality of life. The greatest benefit is hometown pride.”
Image courtesy of SoFly Productions
For communities pondering the development of similar projects, nothing trumps the importance of knowing your community and its specific needs. Put simply, “Know your ‘why.’ Understand why you’re doing it,” offers Brewer. “This park was tailor-made for Albertville and the region. Our advice for other areas would be to ‘do you.’”
Furthermore, says Honea, “What we’ve got isn’t necessarily what [other communities] need. You’ve got to understand the identity of your community and which components make sense. My advice is to take advantage of your unique resources, people, and unique characteristics.”