IRMO – A major sports center planned for Irmo could provide the opportunity for major sports tournaments in the Columbia region and boost tourism in the region.
The Nexx Level Sports Center would include a fitness center, rock climbing class, after-school tutoring area, eight basketball courts and 16 volleyball courts.
Proponents predict it will bring $51 million in spending to the region over the first five years and $113 million over the first 10 years.
“Those economic impacts are traveling to Irmo, staying in hotels, shopping while they’re here, eating while they’re here,” said Alison Hewitt, the project coordinator. “An average tournament lasts three days, so every weekend there are a few thousand people with their children in town for three days.”
The SC Kings Foundation, the local nonprofit behind the proposal, has a contract with The Sports Facilities Cos. closed, which has sporting facilities statewide, including successful ones in Myrtle Beach and Rock Hill.
SC Kings plans to open a similar facility in Irmo and is working to secure funding commitments from Richland County, the State of South Carolina and private investors.
The planned sports complex is being built amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when sports tourism proved to be a more stable form of tourism during the economic downturn.
“Nothing is recession-proof,” said Scott Powers, executive director of tourism agency Experience Columbia Sports. “But most families want their children to have everything they can.”
He added, “So usually the last thing families want to save is for their kids to be able to attend these sport travel events.”
The athletic center would aim to bring tournaments to Columbia every weekend and work with community partners during the weekdays, Hewitt said. A sports facility like Nexx Level is a must for bringing major tournaments to Columbia, Powers said.
“A large facility like this will be able to attract the kind of events that the Columbia area doesn’t even consider (right now),” Powers said.
Plans for the Nexx Level Sports Center have been in the works for about two and a half years, Hewitt said.
“Funding these projects is like a chicken and an egg,” Hewitt said. “People who are doing this type of lending would like to see the city, county, state, whatever financially coordinate with it… say, ‘Okay, we can look at our budgets for funding options once, fund them,’ and the financiers say, “We’ll happily close the funding once we see you have a contribution from the community.”
To date, SC Kings has raised $300,000 in funding to begin environmental studies and build a construction team. The total cost of the project is about $18 million, with 30 percent of the funding coming from government support, including $100,000 already pledged by the city of Irmo, Hewitt said.
Sue Dillon, director of the Lake Murray Volleyball Club, a nonprofit group that organizes youth volleyball events in the area, said her organization recognized the immediate value of the project and invested a small amount to help SC Kings get started in the early planning stages support.
“It’s a lot of money (for us) because we’re such a small organization, but in the bigger picture of this enormous project, it’s not a lot,” Dillon said.
In early 2021, the Richland Recreation Commission approached Richland County for help funding a large sports complex, but the project never came to fruition.
“I’ve never had anyone, not a politician, say they wouldn’t support the idea,” Powers said. “But supporting it and approving $25 million are two different things. Everyone would love to see it, but I think it’s going to require a public-private partnership.”
Despite financial challenges, SC Kings is moving ahead with its plans and is committed to the 24.9-acre property on Bickley Road in north-west Irmo. The Columbia-area city is developed enough to handle large crowds when the sports center opens its doors, but has plenty of room for growth, Hewitt said. Also, the city is right off the highway, which makes traveling convenient, she said.
“It just checks all the boxes for location, amenities, restaurants, and a sentiment that makes those locations successful,” Hewitt said.
A sports center with enough seats under one roof makes tournament logistics easier, Dillon said.
“Having to rent out multiple locations, each with just one or two spaces, is very expensive and logistically cumbersome,” Dillon said.
SC Kings hopes to finalize its financial plans in the next 30 to 60 days so it can open doors in a year and a half, Hewitt said.
Irmo Mayor Barry Walker did not respond to a request for comment.
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