A record number of sports tourism visitors came to Columbus last year — 46 percent more, to be exact.

A total number of 146,932 sports-related visitors directly spent an estimated $10 million in Bartholomew County during 2016, said Karen Niverson, the Columbus Area Visitors Center’s executive director, during the group’s annual meeting Wednesday.

That economic impact represents a 13.6 percent increase from an estimated $8.8 million in 2015.

When a ripple effect is factored in — a dollar spent at a business then allows the owner to spend elsewhere — the total local economic impact of sports tourism in Bartholomew County last year was $16 million.

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The economic impact would have been higher, but large tournaments have required many teams to lodge outside Bartholomew County because of a limited number of local rooms.

“So we lose that (outside-the-county) economic impact,” Niverson said.

One of the biggest new sports-tourism events for Columbus last year was the U.S. Specialty Sports Association State Girls Fastpitch Softball Tournament, held June 17-19. The tournament attracted 222 teams, 10,490 people and provided a direct spending boost of $613,300 locally, according to figures provided by the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.

Sports tourism emergence

In the 1990s, “sports tourism was not even on our radar,” said Cindy Waddle, the visitors center board president.

Outside the meeting, Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Mark Jones said the city didn’t begin its push to recruit sports tournaments until 2003.

Longtime local business and community leader Hutch Schumaker, a member of the visitors center’s 18-person sports advisory council, said he has become convinced about the potential for sports tourism.

“When I first got involved, I kind of thought, ‘Sports tourism? Maybe that’s mostly for big cities,'” Schumaker said.

No more.

“Once we did a study to provide accurate, local data on the impact on this community, I was dumbfounded,” Schumaker said. “Totally dumbfounded. I became a believer really quickly.”

Over the past several years, the city has hosted golf, softball, rugby, swimming and other competitions that draws teams and visitors to Columbus.

Last year, the city hosted 90 events, an increase of 13 from 2015, according to the visitors center’s statistics.

City’s draw

Officials give ample credit to Eric Marvin, the local director of sports tourism, for visiting conventions and conferences and networking substantially to recruit tournaments. But people such as Schumaker and Jones add that other elements work in Columbus’ favor, including the city’s reputation for ample and excellent volunteers for such events.

Plus, feedback from visitors often includes compliments about the local sports facilities and their maintenance.

For example, in-progress improvements at three local facilities — new restrooms at Dunn Stadium, auxiliary parking at Otter Creek Golf Course, and dining and concession upgrades at Ceraland Park — are slated to be completed in time for sports tournaments’ peak summer use, Niverson said.

She added that the visitors center worked with its advisory council a few years ago to conduct an audit of the local sports facilities, and prioritized these improvements. The center then took that list to the local Visitors Information and Promotion Board, which appropriated funds for the work.

“This (project) has been a great example of how community leaders are working together to make things happen in Bartholomew County,” Niverson said.

Local facilities in general earn high marks from sports tourney visitors, Jones said.

“Many of these people tell us they think we have some of the best facilities in the state,” Jones said.

The overall tourism picture is a healthy one, according to the visitors center board and staff.

A 2015 Certec research firm economic impact study indicated that Bartholomew County visitors spent $257 million in the local economy, which supports 4,426 jobs in the area’s hospitality industry.

Record for hotel tax revenues

Bartholomew County’s hotel tax receipts for last year were a record $1.46 million, Columbus Area Visitors Center Board President Cindy Waddle reported during the agency’s annual meeting.

In 1994, to give perspective, $575,000 was collected in hotel taxes, which is used to promote the local tourism industry, she said.

Decisions on how to spend hotel tax receipts are made by the county’s 11-member Visitors Information and Promotion Commission.

The draw of Columbus

What brings people to Columbus? Lisa Westmark of the Columbus Area Visitors Center asked tourists that question in 2016.

Among the biggest reasons:

  • 90 percent came for leisure/sightseeing. Of that amount, 25 percent were visiting family or friends and 15 percent were studying architecture.
  • 8 percent came for business or personal reasons.

New panel

The Columbus Area Visitors Center also announced the formation of a 16-member Community Advisory Panel for a variety of input and ideas.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.