CLEARWATER — Nearly 40 years ago, then-Parks and Recreation director Ream Wilson walked a stretch of palmettos and rattlesnake habitat at the corner of Drew Street and McMullen-Booth Road and envisioned athletes on fields and fans in the stands.
Fastpitch softball had become the city's main spectator sport. Wilson's predecessor, Eddie C. Moore, served national leadership roles while working for the city and helping form the men's Clearwater Bombers, which won 10 national championships between 1950 and 1973.
It was an era before the Tampa Bay Rays gave fans a major home team to root for, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had only played their first football season a few years earlier, and Wilson wanted to keep the momentum going. But first, they needed a quality place to play. At the time, city employees would lift up the sod at Jack Russell Stadium's field between baseball games so softball players could run on the clay.
"Clearwater became synonymous with softball, and we wanted to have a facility that was deserving of that kind of respect," Wilson, 78, said last week. "We knew if we had a good enough facility, we'd be able to bring enough big tournaments to Clearwater to where it would affect the economy, bring people into the hotels, the restaurants."
Since opening in 1980, the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex has driven an amateur sports tourism industry that swelled to $21 million last year, giving the city something to tout other than its beach. The evolution is peaking July 24 as the city, for the first time, will host 26 countries for the 2017 World Baseball Softball Confederation Jr. Women's Softball World Championship. The week before, the city will host for the second time the USA Softball Gold 18- under and 16-under national championships, which alone will bring 12,000 room-nights and a $7 million to $10 million economic impact, Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said.
Dunbar said the nurturing of this niche industry has been a deliberate grind since he took over the department from Wilson in 1999, becoming the city's third parks and recreation director in 60 years.
"We built things up over time and to me it's a marathon, it's not a sprint," Dunbar said. "Many communities think if you build the fields, events will come. I think you have to build up your capacity to do these things."
In 2001 the city added three fields to the complex's original four — and two more in 2004. Dunbar led $2.3 million worth of upgrades in the past 17 years, and $4 million to the nearby Syd Lickton Complex, which has facilities needed for major tournaments most venues in the country can't offer, said Craig Cress, executive director of USA Softball.
"If there are 10 places in the country that could do it, I'd be shocked," Cress said.
The organization needs eight fields for the 64 teams that compete in 18-under and six fields for the 16-under tournament's 48 teams, Cress said. In Clearwater, USA Softball can host its 18-under tournament at Eddie C. Moore Complex's nine fields and the 16-under at the Sid Lickton Complex 3 miles away.
When the organization held the 2015 tournament in Oregon, the groups were separated at fields an hour apart, Cress said.
"We're also looking for easy access to airports and Tampa provides that," Cress said. "You have the hotels, concessions that teams can purchase there on site, and a lot of evening events and restaurants close to ballpark facilities. It doesn't hurt that you have a very, very nice beach attraction, too."
Women's softball will be included in the 2020 Olympic Games for the first time since 2008, and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Chief Operating Officer Tim Ramsberger said he expects that to contribute to the growth in the sport regionally. If Los Angeles beats out Paris to host the 2024 Olympics, softball and baseball are also widely expected to be included in the wildcard sports the host city can add to the 28 sports built into the competition. Ramsberger said that could bring teams to the area for training and competitions leading up to the event.
Although Clearwater's amateur sports play a different role in the county's overall tourism than the beaches and professional sports industries, Ramsberger said large teams and their families make an impact on hotel stays and affiliated travel activities because when they come for the games, they stay for the beaches, restaurants and weather.
"Teams in Europe and South America look at Florida as a gateway to come here and train and make their way to (the Los Angeles Olympics)," Ramsberger said. "The economic impact may not be as strong as leisure or meetings, but when you couple the economic impact and branding, the image of us hosting future Olympians here playing softball, it's solid."
The number of amateur sporting events — from competitions to clinics — held at the city's half-dozen venues for softball, baseball, swimming, lacrosse, basketball, volleyball and others has nearly doubled every year since 2012. But softball is carrying that growth, accounting for about 40 percent of the $21 million economic impact generated by all the events in 2016.
Gary Kane, a former Tampa police officer who played for the Bombers from 1976 to 1980, and again in 1985, said the ascent of softball in Clearwater to an international stage is helping to keep a storied history alive.
"The legacy lives on," Kane said. "Softball is everywhere. You know McMullen-Booth Road? That's (family of) Paul McMullen, a former Bomber."
But Elizabeth Brushwood, president of the Clearwater Lady Bombers, which formed in 1989, said there is a special pride for the women's sport to be carrying the city to the international stage this month.
It is the first time the city will host a world championship for any discipline, Dunbar confirmed. And Brushwood said it shows how integral the women's division has been to the history of the sport in the city.
"It's really neat for the girls to have this in their back yard and be able to go out and see these ladies play and emulate them," Brushwood said. "The Bombers have put over 100 girls into collegiate softball, and most of the girls who play have the desire to be on that next level. It shows how strong the organization is, and it's in our back yard."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.