Columbia County, long a breeding ground for prep athletics, also quietly is laying the groundwork for professional and semi-pro sports and an increase in tourism.
In the process, taxpayers are getting maximum return on a minimal investment. It's hard to argue with that formula.
Just over two years ago, Columbia County officials agreed to a low-cost lease agreement on previously unused space at sprawling Wildwood Park. As a result, this spring the world headquarters of the fast-growing Disc Golf Association moved from Canada to Columbia County.
Using sales-tax funds, the county financed boat-ramp and parking upgrades at Wildwood Park to accommodate major bass-fishing tournaments. Soon after they built it, the tournaments came -- with more on the way. These tournaments, with as many as 300 competitors, bring tremendous economic impact to the community.
Next Sunday, the Augusta Fireball soccer team plays its first home game at Patriots Park. Long the site of big softball and soccer tournaments, the park will be the home pitch of the United Soccer Premier Development League team. It's made up of Division 1-level collegiate players, and promises to bring an exciting level of competition to the hordes of young soccer fans in the area.
And there could be more sports, and more visitors, on the way.
In the fiscal year 2006 budget expected to be approved June 7, County Commissioners have reconfigured the way the local hotel-motel tax money will be used.
The biggest impact is the Metro Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has long the recipient of the largest single share of the funds. The CVB will be slashed to $40,000 next year; under the current formula, the agency was scheduled to receive $166,000. Meanwhile, the Greater Augusta Sports Council, which has worked diligently to bring these sporting events to Columbia County, is being raised from $5,000 to $30,000 -- and probably deserves more.
The rest of the money left from trimming down the CVB grant will be kept in Columbia County as the county forms its own tourism agency. It's clear that sports -- especially those taking advantage of Clarks Hill Lake -- will be a major part of the effort to attract more visitors to the county.
Best of all, part of the money these visitors spend in local hotels comes back to county coffers through the hotel-motel tax, providing a self-perpetuating fund for drawing more high-impact tourist dollars without taking a dime from local property owners.
That's a great investment, and a winning formula for Columbia County.
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