The latest proposal for a tourist attraction at Florence’s Veterans Park is a multi-court, indoor-outdoor tennis complex adjacent to the Marriott Shoals.
Based on the experiences of other Alabama cities with similar facilities, it could be a profitable proposition.
“We do a lot of tournaments on our courts,” said Robert Hendrix, executive director of the Dothan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The United States Tennis Association has rated our courts among the top three public courts in the country.”
Dothan has 20 outdoor clay courts built by the city about 11 years ago. Hendrix said the tennis tournaments they attract have an economic impact of about $2 million a year.
During the past 10 years, Florence has considered and rejected numerous ideas for redeveloping Veterans Park on the Tennessee River as part of an economic development partnership with Retirement Systems of Alabama. RSA, under the guidance of CEO David Bronner, helped build the Marriott Hotel and Spa next to the Florence Conference Center and Renaissance Tower, and a pair of Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses in neighboring Colbert County.
The local government agreed to impose a 2-cent-per-gallon fuel tax to fund the area’s commitment to the project.
The third ingredient in the deal was to build a tourist attraction in the park, which is across the road from the Marriott. Retail-based ideas were rejected by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns Veterans Park and leases it to the city.
TVA will not allow commercial development on the property, which is set aside for public access recreation.
Bronner has asked Florence to consider a tennis complex for the park. The initial cost estimate is $10 million, officials said. Already, $2 million has been set aside for infrastructure inside the park, which was part of the original investment.
The idea is under consideration, but no decisions or commitments have been made.
“I’ve been working on this idea for almost three years,” said Florence resident Susan Goode, a member of the United States and Alabama tennis associations. “The topography in the park is perfect, and there are already restrooms and other facilities there.”
Goode has written detailed letters with drawings of other tennis complexes to city officials.
“I have been to tournaments in Gulf Shores, Pelham, Dothan and Mobile,” she said. “Every one of those locations has nothing that we would not be able to put into play. In fact, our location would be better suited than a lot of those sites.”
Goode, a veteran tennis player who has helped coach teams in Lauderdale County schools, said Florence and Muscle Shoals have the hotels and restaurants that tournament attendees would want, and there are enough hotel rooms in the two counties to accommodate a large tournament.
“The convenience of our location exceeds anything I’ve seen at other places,” she said. “The key is to get someone who knows how to aggressively bid for these tournaments.”
Auburn has one of the newest tennis complexes in the region, including indoor courts, which was built jointly by the city and Auburn University at a cost of almost $10 million. It opened in autumn 2007.
John Wild, executive director of Auburn/Opelika Tourism, said his office recruits and bids for tennis tournaments.
At least 15 have been scheduled this year, he said, the largest of which will attract 600 participants.
“The impact of these tournaments on the community has been huge,” he said.
For example, Auburn officials estimate $238 is spent per night per family during tennis events, which average a two-day period. Wild said the economic impact from the average tournament is $99,000-$127,000.
Debbie Wilson, director of the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Bureau, said an indoor tennis facility would bring more visitors to the Shoals during the winter months, which would increase the number of hotel rooms rented and boost sales tax collections during what is normally a slow period.
Everyone familiar with large tennis complexes said in order to be successful, the centers must have a director who knows how to bid for major tournaments and provide the level of service expected by the U.S. Tennis Association.
Goode said the Shoals is in a position to successfully compete for these kinds of tournaments.
“Muscle Shoals is taking on the Cypress Lakes tennis courts, so Colbert County now has the opportunity to add some courts and participate in bidding with Florence for tournaments,” she said. “We could host a very large tournament.”
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.