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Ben Salango: Impact of youth soccer tourney seen across region (Opinion)

While cruising the valley late last month, did you notice an unusual number of out-of-state license plates? Maybe you were surprised when, suddenly, you couldn’t get a table at your favorite restaurant?

I can explain why: The Shawnee Sports Complex and the Barboursville Soccer Complex just wrapped up hosting the United States Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Tournament. The seven-day event brought 260 teams from 13 different states and an estimated 20,000 visitors to the Kanawha Valley.

The impact of the Eastern Regional could be seen and felt all over — from busy hotel reservation desks to the long lines at local restaurants. Speaking of hotels, I hope you didn’t need a room. Forty-one different hotels, from Beckley to Ashland, Kentucky, to Parkersburg — and everywhere in between — were booked solid during the tournament. That’s more than 4,100 hotel rooms each night.

Restaurants from Dunbar to Teays Valley to Huntington were packed. Many in downtown Charleston stayed open hours after normal closing time, often serving until they ran out of food. Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream and First Watch — Charleston landmarks — had record-breaking weekends.

Some restaurants, like the Olive Tree Cafe in South Charleston, accommodated teams by opening on days they are normally closed. Still others, like The Bucket in Dunbar, had to bring on additional staff to handle the increase in business.

But the hotels and restaurants weren’t the only winners, as a number of small businesses and local shops saw a big uptick in foot traffic and sales.

Overall, this seven-day soccer tournament and its related activity benefited the local economy to the tune of $20 million dollars. Sports tourism is booming, and it’s on full display in our own backyard. The Shawnee Sports Complex is competing — and winning — on a national level. An impressive accomplishment considering we cut the ribbon at the state-of-the-art facility only one year ago.

Due to some fortuitous timing, the first few days of the tournament coincided with some of the best and busiest days of Charleston’s FestivALL. Several soccer teams took in Live on the Levee on Friday evening, the Capitol Street Art Fair on Saturday or one of the weekend’s dozens of other events. The downtown open, a pop-up putt-putt golf course — played on 29 holes spanning Charleston’s sidewalks — was an especially popular attraction. As a result, we heard positive feedback about our “cool and fun” capital city.

The tournament’s profile was further boosted by the excellent coverage from local television and media, including several live broadcasts from both Shawnee and Barboursville. The Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch stepped up and scored big, printing the daily box scores so we could follow along with how West Virginia teams were faring against the out-of-state competition. The tournament organizers, players and families appreciated the excellent local news coverage.

The good news is that U.S. Youth Soccer will be back next year, as Shawnee and Barboursville will again host the 2020 Presidents Cup and the Eastern Regional Tournament. That’s $24 million-$32 million more in new spending coming into the community.

Of course Shawnee is still slated to hold additional major tournaments, such as the EDP Fall Kickoff in September, the Friends of Coal Cup in November, the WVFC Capital Cup in April, and the Gatorade Showcase in May. Additional tournaments will be held on a regular basis over the next year in lacrosse, football, baseball and softball. The positive momentum keeps going, as we were very excited to announce that Shawnee and the City of Charleston won the bid to host the 2020 United States Quidditch Cup. (Google it, you will be impressed!)

Having a state-of-the-art sports facility like Shawnee will attract sports tourism to our region for years to come. But having great hospitality is what will set us apart and keep teams and families coming back.

This past week, time and time again, we heard teams remark about the friendly and inviting people of West Virginia. We received compliments about the servers at restaurants and the welcoming employees at hotels. And we received some much-deserved praise for the hardworking staff and volunteers at the Shawnee Sports Complex and Barboursville Soccer Complex.

So, thank you, Kanawha Valley, for welcoming our guests and for showing everyone why West Virginia truly is “Almost Heaven.” Now let’s take a deep breath and get ready for the next tournament.

Ben Salango is a member of the Kanawha County Commission and an investor in HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Funerals for Friday, July 19, 2019

Cawley Jr., George - 3 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cunningham, Corinna - 11 a.m., Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mt. Lookout.

Evenson, Warren - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Lawrence, Jerry - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Ratliff, Sarah - 2 p.m., Odd Fellow Cemetery, Oak Hill.

Williams, Scott - 11 a.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.