Rocky Top Sports World taking shape
With July approaching, the Rocky Top Sports World Park is just a year away from becoming a reality.
The massive recreation project — a joint effort between Gatlinburg and Sevier County governments — is the largest capital sports project locally since Smokies Park opened in 2000. It’s on schedule for a July 2014 premiere.
Envisioned as a state-of-the-art sporting events site nestled into a tourism hotspot, the $20 million construction is billed by the city and county as an event organizer’s “dream.”
“There are so many different opportunities with a sports complex like this,” Gatlinburg City Commissioner Mike Werner said Friday. “You can do tournaments, you can do camps and different seminars. I guess it’s sort of like the sky’s the limit. Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to go after.”
While the facility will offer venues for basketball, football, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse, it is primarily about economic development for both the city and county.
“It’s about the old cliché, putting heads in beds,” Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle told Werner on his TV show “Inside Gatlinburg” in March. “(Putting) people in these restaurants, people in these shops. That’s what it’s really about.”
“It’s getting people here,” Werner echoed Friday. “It’s very similar to the convention center, (to get tourists) to come and stay. You try to schedule your events so that they will have time to go and enjoy Sevier County, enjoy Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville with the time they have in between games.”
The sport complex will feature seven multi-purpose outdoor fields and an 86,000-square-foot indoor facility.
When combined with the facilities at nearby Gatlinburg-Pittman High School and the Community Center, there will be 10 basketball courts and 17 volleyball courts available to host huge traveling tournaments and other sporting events.
That’s a huge draw when combined with the natural attraction of Sevier County, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In fact, Ogle said that Susan Whitaker, Tennessee’s tourism commissioner, was genuinely excited by the project’s potential.
“Her comment was that sports tourism is the up-and-coming … the recession-proof industry that the whole state needs to be about,” Ogle told Werner. “She’s very excited about what we’re doing here and very supportive about it too.”
That support was also echoed by both the city and county governments, which each approved the plan and their financial involvement unanimously.
“Once we got together and presented it, it was a unanimous vote to do it — which really surprised a lot of people,” Werner said. “(But) it’s a good concept. It’s a good idea. It’s a win-win for the city and for the county and other cities.
“Everybody’s going to benefit from it. People that stay up here in Gatlinburg, they go to Dollywood, they go to Tanger, they go to Dixie Stampede and Smokies stadium. It’s the whole experience of Sevier County that we’re wanting people to experience and then go tell other people about it.”
The idea for the project was years in the making. With such limited space in Gatlinburg because of the city’s physical constraints within the mountains and park, the venture had several fits and starts, with early options on property and locations falling through.
Finally, through brainstorming and bouncing ideas off one another, officials in Gatlinburg determined the perfect spot.
“There were a few of us that thought, here’s the high school and the community center with already existing facilities, and then things kind of lined up,” Werner said.
The city bought property around the high school, including a large portion left by Wilma Maples to Walters State Community College, making a total campus size of nearly 80 acres for the Rocky Top Sports World complex.
“It was just people brainstorming and throwing out ideas; I guess that’s sometimes how good things really materialize,” Werner said.
In addition to bringing more tourists to the area, Gatlinburg hopes the site will spur redevelopment of the north end of the city.
“Hopefully having major impact on that Highway 321 corridor,” Ogle said on “Inside Gatlinburg.”
The facility already has a marketing and sales director, Lori Moore, and has recently hired a general manager, Steve Daugherty.
“He was with Disney’s Wide World of Sports (now ESPN Wide World of Sports) when they came out of the ground (in Orlando),” Werner said. “He was with them for 13 to 14 years. He’s very excited. He’s from the Tampa area and he’s getting ready to move up here, and he’s really going to be a huge asset to getting us started and getting this project off the ground. That’s going to be really, really good.”
Roughly 70 percent of the project is being financed by the city of Gatlinburg, while Sevier County is picking up the other 30 percent.