Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Lottie Tucker fishes from the Ingalls Marina dock Wednesday. On Oct. 18, Ingalls plays host to the Bassmaster Southern Open. Coordinators expect the event to generate 1,500 room-nights.
catch for city
Harbor lures tournaments, events that fill Decatur’s hotel rooms and coffers
By Eric Fleischauer
Decatur continues to reel in the big ones after baiting its hook with state-of-the-art Ingalls Harbor.
The bait’s not even properly on the hook. Several phases remain before completion of the project, but already the city’s stringer is filling with major fishing tournaments and other events.
Moreover, much of the expense — while fronted by the city — is being reimbursed by the Decatur-Morgan County Hospitality Association through a self-imposed tax on hotel rooms. Pleased with the success of the project, the Hospitality Association upped the tax from $1.50 to $2 per room-night.
“It’s a great example of government spending money to make money,” said Jim Page. Page, a coordinator of Riverfest at Ingalls, is a vice president at Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people question a government spending money on things like that, but it’s an investment. Now they’re getting the return on that investment.”
Measuring that return is not simple, but hotel room-nights give a sense of the scope.
The FLW Stren Series Championship fishing tournament in November, one of three tournaments in 2006, generated 1,812 room-nights.
Oct. 18, Ingalls plays host to the Bassmaster Southern Open. Coordinators expect the event to generate 1,500 room-nights. It will be followed two weeks later by a smaller Bass Federation tournament.
Another Bassmasters event, scheduled for June, should generate at least as many room-nights as did FLW Stren. For years the event was in Guntersville. With Ingalls, Decatur had the juicier worm. The event is one of eight scheduled in 2008.
Riverfest had outgrown its Rhodes Ferry Park location and last year held the event at the infant Ingalls.
"The expanded facility permitted it to generate $29,000 in room-nights, said Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tami Reist."
Weather permitting, this year’s Riverfest was expected to generate much more. Seventy cooking teams were participating. Many are from out-of-state and will rent hotel rooms for at least three nights.
Many Riverfest visitors come from out of town, and some spend the night.
“Nobody likes taxes,” Reist said of the room tax. “But it’s a wonderful project. The tax is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
If increased hotel occupancy were the only benefit from the marina, it could be called a success story. Hotel taxes — generally levied on nonresidents — are paying the bulk of the price, after all. Tourists are paying for a tourist attraction.
But as Reist explains, hotels are only one of the many beneficiaries of Ingalls’ popularity.
“Those people coming in didn’t just stay in our hotels,” Reist said. “They gassed up their boats, they ate, they bought fishing tackle.” They go to the mall and shop on Bank Street.
Reist estimates that FLW Stren, including hotel revenue, pumped $836,000 into the Decatur economy.
The hotel revenue is important in its own right. Andy Safiano, manager of Decatur Holiday Inn, said area hotels maintain good occupancy rates during the week thanks to local industry.
Weekends are the problem, and events at Ingalls are a solution.
“It’s filling in a huge hole for us,” Safiano said.
Cyndi Copeland, acting general manager of Country Inn and Suites on Bank Street Northeast, said in 2006 alone she knows of 200 room-nights at her hotel that resulted from fishing tournaments at Ingalls.
She has not tracked room rentals tied to Riverfest, but she said there have been many.
“It’s been tremendous for us,” Copeland said, “especially because of where we are located. We’re sitting next to Ingalls and all this history on Bank Street. It’s a huge asset for us.”
Hotels may be the biggest single winner in the Ingalls sweepstakes, but they serve merely as a gate through which the revenue enters Decatur’s larger economy.
Hotels hire people. Hotels spend money at laundries. They hire landscapers and painters and roofers. They purchase supplies, pay for phone service and electricity. They pay taxes.
Ingalls also has brought Decatur national publicity. Much of the publicity comes through ESPN coverage of fishing tournaments.
Last year’s hosting of the annual Southeast Outdoor Press Association conference generated publicity as well. The publicity is all positive, and has the potential to attract not only more tourists but residents as well.
The residential draw is critical in a city with aging infrastructure and almost no population growth.
The harbor was central to a local developer’s decision to build condominiums adjacent to the harbor.
John Mitchell said the city’s finalization of plans to build a park at Ingalls was “the last nudge” he needed to pursue development of the property.
He has shown the property to many prospective buyers, and he said the presence of Ingalls has been a tremendous positive.
“They can’t believe it,” Mitchell said. “Without exception they have been enthusiastic about Ingalls. They say they can’t believe we have it.”
A beauty of Ingalls — as well as other government-assisted tourism destinations, like Point Mallard Aquatic Park and soccer fields — is that it improves the quality of life of residents even as it brings in tourism dollars.
“In preparing for Riverfest, I’ve been out to Ingalls countless times the last few weeks,” said Page. “Every time I go I’m amazed at the number of trucks and trailers and boats that are out there. Residents of Decatur have a first-class boat launch that no one in North Alabama can compete with.”
That attracts new residents, but also gives pleasure to those of us who are already here.
Rand Bryan, a Decatur veterinarian, was at Ingalls on Wednesday to put in his sailboat.
“I think the city did a real service to the people fixing that up,” Bryan said. “It’s a great asset. During the summer months, it seems like there’s always a hundred trailers out there.”
He likes the fact that the harbor benefits a different group of residents than many government-assisted projects.
“I don’t have a child that’s ballfield age, so I’ve always griped that it seems like every time the city got some money they built another ballfield,” Bryan said. “I was glad to see them build something like Ingalls.”
Tommy Roundtree of Athens idled his bass boat while waiting for a friend.
“I love it. There’s so much room. Also, it’s out of the main river and out of the wind,” he said. “It’s much safer than most places.”
Roundtree comes to Ingalls often, and frequently eats dinner in Decatur before returning home.
Retired Decatur resident Jim DePoyster uses the marina several times a week. His only complaint: “It was about 25 years too late.”
“Decatur has catered to industry for years,” DePoyster said, after backing his boat down the ramp. “It’s about time they focused on recreation. But yes, I really like Ingalls.”
Former Mayor Lynn Fowler was one of those who pushed the city to buy the $2.3 million Ingalls shipyard, now home to the harbor, in 2003.
“It is exciting to me to see it come to fruition,” Fowler said Wednesday. “If you start imagining what you can do, if you don’t put any boundaries on it, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”
More to come at Ingalls
Ingalls Marina has been a huge success — both in drawing tourism dollars and benefiting area residents — and it’s not even complete.
Planned enhancements to the marina:
A large sign on Alabama 20 identifying the marina. The sign has been built and will be erected soon.
Landscaped public park.
Pavilion on water’s edge.
River heritage museum.
Docking facility and support building for riverboats.
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