Plans to develop and promote Muskogee as a premier venue for various sports were described Monday as risky propositions.
The assessment was part of the findings of a semester-long study of the city’s parks facilities and programs conducted by University of Arkansas graduate students. They said Muskogee is “blessed with beautiful parks” and community support but questioned its focus on sports tourism.
“We heard sports tourism is a really hot topic — how to bring in more people for softball, soccer leagues and so forth,” one of the students, David Rolfe, said about information gleaned from two public meetings, a survey and focus groups. “I am sorry to tell you sports tourism is exceptionally competitive nationwide (and) especially in Oklahoma.”
The immediate goal of the Love-Hatbox Sports Complex development plan is to improve field conditions for the various sporting venues. The idea is to lure tournament-level events, whose participants ideally would spend weekends in Muskogee.
But Rolfe said there already are several “beautiful facilities in close proximity” to Muskogee. In addition to the competitive risks, Rolfe said the costs of upkeep and the lack of entertainment that will keep league members in town after games could be a tough sell in trying to attract tournament-level play on a regular basis.
“It’s a pretty big pill to swallow to put in brand-new soccer and brand-new softball facilities,” Rolfe said, offering a suggestion to start small and test the market. “Verify there is a strong interest ... before you commit to building new facilities.”
Parks and Recreation Director Mark Wilkerson acknowledged there is competition for athletic events. But he said one factor to consider in light of the graduate students’ findings is that sporting venues already exist at Love-Hatbox.
“It’s not like we are proposing to do new facilities,” Wilkerson said. “We need to do a better job of enhancing them and do a better job of managing them, getting people in here and using them.”
To that end, city councilors recently approved in March a request to seek qualifications of private contractors interested in managing, marketing and promoting Love-Hatbox Sports Complex as a regional venue. The response to those invitations has yet to be made public.
Although the researchers urged caution regarding the pursuit of sports tourism, they said promoting music festivals might be a better option. Rolfe said interest within the community for such an option appeared to be strong, so he and his colleagues “dug a little deeper” into the data.
“You have a unique opportunity here with the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame — you have parks, a beautiful convention center, and there are places that are already within the community that can bring in a music festival,” he said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you don’t need to build new things to bring in lots ... of people to bring in dollars and bring in visitors.”
Wilkerson said he believes the idea of a music festival fits in with what residents said they would like to see. The subject also has been broached as part of the Love-Hatbox development plans.
“Part of that has to do with what they were saying about something to do after hours — we can’t seem to do that,” he said. “The music festival thing is a real trend — we are learning about that, and we have a huge chunk of property that could be a host to something like that” at Love-Hatbox.
The parks facilities and programs study began this year with two public hearings — both well attended — during which participants offered ideas about what they would like to see. Information gleaned from those hearings was used as “the baseline” for a questionnaire sent to 1,000 randomly selected Muskogee households.
Merry Moiseichik, the professor who, along with two parks professionals, oversaw the study, said the students put in more than 1,000 hours of work. She valued the study between $85,000 and $135,000. Muskogee taxpayers paid only for the “direct costs” of the study, such as travel expenses.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parks survey results
Top 5 facility needs:
• Rest rooms
• Improved security
• Outdoor music stage
• Exposition center
• Swim and fitness expansion
Top 5 program needs:
• Music festival
• Swimming lessons
• Summer youth programs
• Sports tourism
• Youth sports