The Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater is arguably one of the largest endeavors the City of Albertville has ever undertaken.

With nearly 130 acres of recreation area including multiple baseball, soccer and football fields; tennis, basketball and sand volleyball courts; playgrounds; a 4-mile walking trail; dog park; RV camp site; 7,600-seat outdoor amphitheater; and state-of-the-art sports complex complete with workout room, indoor basketball and racquet ball courts and aquatics center, there’s nothing else like it in north Alabama, let alone Sand Mountain.

What began as an $8 million plan to repair the pool and basketball court at the old Albertville Rec Center in 2017, evolved into a nearly $86 million complete overhaul that will impact the future of Marshall County and the surrounding areas in terms of business, tourism and health for years to come.

The Master Plan

Albertville Mayor Tracy Honea said when he first came into office in 2012, discussions regarding upgrading the Albertville Parks and Recreation area were already in the works.

“There has been a plan to redo the facilities for several years. The old facility was 50 years old, give or take,” he said.

In 2015, the city installed a new, handicap-accessible pavilion that still stands today next to the football fields at the new park. Beyond that, the park in general needed upgrades and repairs, not the least of which was a costly, leaky swimming pool, he said. 

That’s why in 2016, a “master plan” to do renovate and expand the park was introduced with a proposed initial budget of $8 million. The city council discussed ways of funding the project including seeking a $10 million bond, $2 million of which would go toward aesthetic improvements in the downtown area and to paving projects. 

However, a few months later in April 2017, the council proposed another, more ample budget of $36 million for park renovations along with a 1-cent sales tax increase to provide the funds. 

“This may seem fast to the public,” Albertville City Council President Nathan Broadhurst said at the time. “But, for nearly five years, we’ve been putting a plan together for what people feel needs improving — the recreation center and roads. We’ve been financially responsible with our money and know where every penny goes. But, we’ve done everything we can do with what we have.”

About 40 people attended the public hearing before the council voted on the issue in 2017, but no one spoke against the multi-million-dollar bond or tax increase.

Business consultant David Langham told The Reporter the initial $8 million budget proposal was part of a plan to do renovations in phases. However, he said the conversation started turning toward a much larger budget once the time and long-term costs of a phased approach became more apparent. 

“That [$8 million] sounds like a lot of money, but when you start talking about facilities of that amount of square footage, you start talking about a pool that’s been in the ground as long as that one had, those dollars were not going to be able to do everything that the administration and I think, with the feedback from the community, that they want to do,” he said. 

“Everybody quickly realized, if we patch this up and then we try to do something with the baseball fields and we try to come over here and do something with this or that, that is going to be extremely expensive and it’s going to take a really long time.”

Langham said the same project proposed under the initial Phase 1 $8 million in 2017 would have cost about $2.5 million in 2005. 

With approximately $3.2 million expected to be generated annually for the city by the 1-cent sale tax, the council was able to secure a 30-year, $36 million bond. Since then, Langham said the tax income has “far outpaced” their projections. 

“You guys were in a unique position here in Albertville that at the time the total sales tax levy here was only 8%,” he said. “I would say 90% of Alabama communities were at 10%... We knew that adding one penny and going to 9%, we were still going to be competitive.”

Once the $36 million was approved as a “ball park estimate,” the city began working with architecture firm Chambliss King on the park’s design. Mayor Honea said they held focus groups and toured facilities throughout the southeastern U.S. in order to see what may be possible for Sand Mountain.

“The economy’s doing well. Things are going well, new businesses are open,” Langham said. “New restaurants are opening, jobs are being created, people are spending more here. These are all things you want to see. You get into 2018, and you begin to see what we need to do in SMPA based on feasibility studies, focus groups and everything else is going to be a little bit more than $40 million.”

By the time the city officially broke ground on the project in January 2019, the size of the project had grown to include the aforementioned amenities and expansions, which necessitated a budget of more than $58 million.

Construction went relatively smoothly, all things considered, Honea said. The crews had to deal with the COVID-19, labor and materials shortages and inflation like every other construction project did, he said. That combined with having to remove unexpectedly a large section of rock before continuing the project added millions more to the budget. But while aspects of the economy were struggling and even shut down, Langham said the 1-cent sale tax revenue kept increasing throughout the pandemic allowing the city to safely take on more upfront debt to complete the project.

At last estimate in July 2021, the cost of the park totaled near $86 million — more than 10 times the original budget — with more projects still to be added including another parking lot and disc golf course. 

Economic impact

Based on a study done by Jacksonville State University, Albertville Economic Developer Mike Price said the park has the potential to generate approximately $42 million annually, which is not including sports tourism and entertainment opportunities. 

According to Kelly Baine of Sports Facilities Companies, which manages the park, the amount of money spent in and around the park by visiting teams and others who live outside of Sand Mountain was forecasted to be around $4.1 million this year. However, as of mid-July, the number was calculated at over $10 million in direct economic impact, which could be much higher by the end of the park’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Many local establishments have already seen a bump in their business as out-of-towners flock to SMPA for tournaments, concerts and other recreation, often leaving hotels booked and restaurant dining rooms full.

Local Joe’s, which is located on Main Street in downtown Albertville about a mile from the park, said it has benefitted from SMPA and was “proud” to have it in the community.

“We are so proud to have a facility as wonderful as SMPA in our community,” the restaurant’s co-owner, Karen Stanfield, told The Reporter. “We appreciate, very much, the patience of all of our loyal customers when they come in and see that there are multiple teams dining at the large ‘team and family tables’ as well as other visitors to the area because of the SMPA… We receive calls for catering, etc., and are extremely grateful for the new business.  All of our communications with the staff at SMPA are magnificent. They are a top-notch group of folks.

“We may be on a wait sometimes, but our excellent staff have mastered the art of seating, serving and turning the tables in a manner that allows them to visit with the newcomers and recommend other areas in Albertville and the surrounding area for them to visit while they are in town,” she added.

She said she hopes to be able to soon offer park memberships as an extra benefit for her employees.

From an industry standpoint, President and CEO of the Marshall County Economic Development Council Matt Arnold said he’s excited for what the park could mean for the future of Sand Mountain.

 “This was unfathomable just a few years ago that this [park] would be here,” he told The Reporter. “I have talked to people all over the place … who come here and say, ‘I can’t believe that’s in Albertville, Alabama…’ It is a game-changer for everybody. I knew it the day Mayor Honea told us his plans.”

As a premiere attraction, Arnold said the park will help him recruit more industry to the area moving forward.

“Companies right now are looking for ways to attract workers and every little thing counts,” he said. “We don’t normally have this conversation up front about quality of life. Our community has got to meet certain criteria [to attract more industry].”

In addition to being in the right market and location, he said industry leaders look at the area’s workforce numbers, which is affected by local attractions and commerce. 

“Once you they figure that stuff out, then it comes down to quality of life. What the [park] will do is attract amenities like restaurants, like other retail… It just adds to the overall quality of life experience that ultimately, they are looking for. That’s just not the first thing they’re looking for.”

Competition for labor force has increased so much that companies are discussing quality of life issues earlier and earlier in the negotiation process, and something like the park that may attract workers is enough to set the area apart from other regions, Arnold said.

With new businesses already moving into the area, many citing the park as a prominent reason, other cities near and far are taking notice.

 “We’re already seeing the basic, low hanging fruit like the hotels and restaurants, and overtime, those are going to contribute to our ability to recruit manufacturing and business here,” Arnold said.

In addition to the business it attracts, the park itself has contributed to job growth for the area in the hiring of its own staff, which has included over 200 jobs, 30 of which are full time, according to Park General Manager Patrick O’Brien.

Inside the park’s success

“It’s getting national attention, there is no question about it,” O’Brien said. “We get calls from municipalities almost every week. ‘How did you guys do this? What’s the secret?’ From our company perspective, we are a flagship venue.”

When he joined the SMPA team two years ago as park director, O’Brien said he was struck by the City’s vision for what the park could become.

“The thing that struck me about Albertville and the park itself is just growth,” he told The Reporter. “There was a strong appetite for growth and improving quality of life. And those two things really resonated with me.”

O’Brien said his focus has been to provide a clean, safe and fun experience that helps improve the mental and physical health of the community while also generating a positive economic impact for the area.

Coordinating with multiple contractors during the construction phase on top of dealing with the COVID pandemic, O’Brien said the process leading to the grand opening last April wasn’t easy, but it’s been worth it.

“There’s been some challenges for sure, but you know, I think the other theme throughout that journey is perseverance,” he said. “We didn’t really stop. We adapted. Of course, we did,” he said. “We had to change how we operate but we were lucky and very fortunate that the construction continued.”

 Since opening the ball fields last fall, he said the park has been drawing in teams for tournaments from all over the southeast, consistently from three to five hours away and sometimes even as far as California.

“A huge part of why we took this park on was to get a better recreation experience for the kids. So, it’s exciting to see that happen,” he said. “You talk about improving mental and physical health; it’s just, it’s having fun, getting out there competing a little bit, getting some exercise and social engagement, especially coming out of COVID. I think that’s really had a big impact.”

Between the adult and youth sports leagues, more than 3,000 people have registered to play at the park, O’Brien said, while the number of paying members for the main indoor facility has far exceeded year-one expectations. According to Baine, the park has far surpassed its first-year goal of 1,200 memberships by registering more than 5,750 individual members and a total of 1,800 memberships. Of that, more than 1,300 members check-in on average each week, she said.

“Even more important than the numbers, I would say is just the experience,” O’Brien said. You know, the experience that people are getting here on the fitness side is really, really good — our equipment, the cleanliness, the quality of instructors that we have in group fitness and the variety.”

In seeking ways to continue to engage the community, O’Brien said the park offers a slew of free amenities, even more than the old park had, such as the walking trail, dog park, playgrounds and outdoor courts. 

“Just coming here to walk and coming here for the playgrounds and the dog parks, part of the city’s vision was that we wanted to expand on the offerings that the previous park had and that didn’t cost any money.”

Use of the indoor gym, workout room, tennis courts and pools currently costs around $79 monthly for an individual membership or $15 for a day pass, which is more than some local residents may be willing or able to pay. To help address this disparity, O’Brien said the park has offered “Twilight swims,” where the day pass price was reduced to $5 per person, and free family movie nights at the amphitheater. But it also provides scholarships, on a case by case basis, to kids who can’t afford league registration fees. 

“We will never turn a child away,” O’Brien said. “We do have a foundation that’s established through the City, and it’s a foundation primarily focused on rec sports at the youth level. But I think there’s continued conversations about how we can engage the entire community. And membership is a part of that conversation.”

He added that the park is also considering expanding the scholarship program to include memberships as well.

About Sports Facilities Companies

Sand Mountain Park is owned by the City of Albertville, but it is operated by Sports Facilities Companies (SFC). The following information was provided by SFC:

SFC is the largest network of community-based sport/recreation centers and parks in the U.S. allowing Sand Mountain to attract events, talent, sponsorships, and best practices that have played a vital role in the success of the Park.

Founded in 2003, SFC has served more than 2,500 communities in planning, developing and operating municipally funded sport and recreation centers. The firm has served the U.S. National Parks Service, and hundreds of local, state, and national agencies seeking to improve quality of life through sports recreation and events destinations.  As a result of this lengthy track record of public serve, SFC is the only parks and recreation firm to ever be named a strategic partner to the International City Managers Association (ICMA).  As the gold standard in accurate financial forecasting and oversight of public recreation assets, SFC financial modeling division was engaged to produce the economic impact calculators now used by Florida Parks and Recreation Association, the State of Kansas Parks and Recreation Association, and Pure Michigan Tourism to calculate the impact of sports tourism in the State of Michigan.

With more than 1,300 employees and under the leadership of its original founders, the SFC allows small to midsized communities to create and operate transformational destinations that change outcomes for attendees, communities, and local businesses.  SFC is an owners representative outsourced manager which means that its business and financial practices within venues are highly transparent and undergo annual auditing alongside other government agencies.

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