It's back to work at the Fort Smith Juniors Volleyball club.
Just weeks after hosting its most successful nationally ranked tournament in "Arvest Bank's 2012 Battle at the Fort," at the Fort Smith Convention Center, the Vice President of Club Development Travis Stephens is facing a hard truth that the girls in his club may soon find themselves without a home.
Practices are now held at a commercial warehouse close to the Fort Smith Regional Airport. Stephens said rent is too high for the non-profit organization, and if they are unable to find a permanent practice location soon, they'll go back to hosting "sporadic practices" at Fort Smith, Greenwood, and Van Buren, public schools.
For Stephens, that could mean a serious setback for the girls' ability to compete. And in the last month, compete they have.
Of the eight division championships comprising the tournament, three were captured by Fort Smith teams in the 13-, 14-, and 15-year old divisions.
"We're probably the most competitive we've ever been for teams and coaches. Three or four years ago, we didn't have a single team win any age group. This year three of our teams won their age groups, and I attribute that to having our own building. It's really been the biggest difference for us, because it allows us to have consistency."
Stephens continued: "We can go back to the schools but it's not quite the same. We can't get in on weekends or holidays, and having our own place makes us a more competitive club. We're pursuing different options, but the problem is ceiling heights. We need at least 23 feet of ceiling clearance, and a lot of the box stores don't have it, or maybe they do but support beams are in the way."
Stephens, who works full-time as the CEO of the Clarksville-Johnson County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clarksville-Johnson County Regional Economic Development Corporation, said the club is "looking at finding some land for our own facility," but warned that it would take "money to do it–a lot we don't have unless we have a major fundraising effort."
The VP added that the club liked their current venue, but that "non-profits can't afford that (commercial real estate) without increasing fees for players. Then, we would lose some, and we don’t want that to happen," Stephens said.
The outlook is especially concerning to Stephens when he points to the economic impact the tournament has on the Fort Smith region. According to club numbers, the 2012 Battle at the Fort brought in 174 teams (123 from outside the area) for a total of 1,827 participants.
Tracking just gate fees, there were 3,683 paying spectators, bringing the total number to 5,510, for the tournament that was held Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 4-5.
"When I give you a number like that (5,510), that's a conservative estimate. We didn't charge for or track anyone 12 and under, and that makes it a low number because of little brothers and sisters. And the little kids always want something for sitting through the volleyball matches," Stephens said, noting younger children are a "significant" economic stimulus to the event and the region.
In addition to the amount of participants, the club reported a total of 1,748 hotel rooms booked during both weekends of the event.
At an average cost of $80 per night (Friday and Saturday) for a hotel room, the tournament would bring in close to $280,000 in lodging alone, before factoring in meals, fuel, shopping, and souvenirs.
With a tournament structure where "half the teams are done by 2 p.m.," Stephens said, the tournament's economic influence continues to grow.
"They (visitors) go to the mall and to the movies, and just have a lot of time to kill. They don't want to just sit in their hotel rooms all weekend, so they're almost forced to get out in the community and spend some money."
The club has until "the end of the season," to find a new home. Most seasonal play is over by the end of April, according to the club’s website, though nationally qualified teams can play through the end of June.