Newberry seeks grants to upgrade Champions Park

The Newberry City Commission gave staff the green light on Monday night to apply for a grant to upgrade Champions Park.

The grant application will seek out a piece of $240 million in competitive grant allocations from the American Rescue Plan Congress passed earlier this year.

The Economic Development Administration (EDA) Travel, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation Competitive Tourism grant provides funding for “state, county, cities, or other political subdivision of a State to aid in the recovery of communities that rely on the travel, tourism, and outdoor recreation sectors,” according to the consent agenda summary. “The City intends to apply for funding to repair and replace the aging fences and dugouts at Champions Park.”

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Newberry will offer a 20 percent match for the program to be paid for with proceeds from the lease agreement with RADD Sports, which manages tournaments and use of the facility that houses 16 playing fields.

“The City Commission believes the investment in recreation improvements to support the City’s Champions Park would benefit the City, County, and region and would improve the economic development and resiliency in the area,” the approved resolution states.

Champions Park hosts youth baseball and fastpitch softball tournaments year round for Babe Ruth, SunCoast and USA Elite Select All American leagues.

Newberry partnered with Alachua County in order to raise funds for the building of the Champions Park complex using the local bed tax.

The tournaments and events attract more than 30,000 visitors annually, according to park management.

The facility development began with a groundbreaking ceremony in 2011 for the original Nations Park, which opened in 2013.

After the initial baseball park manager, Lou Presutti, failed to fulfill a contract, Newberry brought on new manager Mike Spina in 2014.

Spina, of Elite Pro Ball Academy in Newberry, took over and that’s when the park name was changed to Champions Park. Spina grew the park programs and went on to coach Newberry High School baseball to its first-ever state championship in 2021.

Elite Pro Ball Academy and Champions Park then contracted Richard Blalock, CEO and president of RADDSPORTS, to expand the tournaments schedule.

Blalock said in a phone interview Monday night that Newberry has been great about helping maintain the park and is working hard to replace the rotted original wood posts with metal fencing.

“The pandemic didn’t slow us down,” Blalock said. “We were the largest park in the country that was open and that brought a couple of new showcases to Newberry that included girls fastpitch.”

In July, Blalock said the 16 and under and 18 and under fastpitch events became the largest assembly of its kind in one place and as a result, Champions Park will host additional tournaments next year.

“We had 84 teams at the Show Me the Money showcase,” Blalock said, adding that the event drew in scouting coaches from 100 major softball colleges in the U.S.

Blalock said in the last three years, events at Champions Park accounted for $4.3 million in hotel room sales and $21 million in indirect sales, including fuel, restaurants and entertainment for visitors.

The next tournament will take attendance over 100,000 in the last three years, with 20 percent of those visitors coming from out of state, 61 percent coming from out of county and 19 percent local.

The Alachua County bed tax revenue for the last three years generated by Champions Park events is $193,000 and sales tax revenue is $271,000.

Blalock said any grants awarded by the EDA will help the facility continue to earn more tournaments, which benefits Alachua County and Newberry businesses.

“The city is helping us keep the park well maintained,” he said.

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