By: Mariel Carbone | WCTV Eyewitness News
November 20, 2017
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV)—Every year thousands of fans pile into Tallahassee to cheer on Florida State University football.
But, another sport is now calling the Big Bend home, luring spectators and their wallets to Leon County. That sport- cross country. The draw is all thanks to a field some are now calling a “crown jewel” of the area.
“We call it the cross country playground,” said Bob Braman, the head cross country coach at Florida State University.
Braman is talking about the course at Apalachee Regional Park, which has funneled in millions of dollars to date to Leon County.
But, the course wasn’t always a money maker.
The park is part of county owned land at the Leon County Solid Waste Management Facility. The county commission has since voted to close the landfill there, all while turning the area into a booming park space.
The vision for the course came out of a dilemma.
“We had a real need for a course because we were without a home,” said Braman.
Florida State cross country had been hosting its FSU Invitational cross country meet at the Miccosukee Greenway for years, but in 2009 that no longer became an option. That’s when Leon County Parks and Recreation stepped in, offering trail space at Apalachee Regional Park. Although the area was part of the solid waste facility, trash had never been stored in that area.
"There wasn't a smell. There was no real stigma to it. You just had these beautiful woods and fields,” said Braman. "(I thought,) have a little vision, have a little imagination and let's see if this can work."
Braman, along with Brian Corbin from the Gulf Winds Track Club, decided to have an open mind and check out the space.
"That's when we had grass all the way from waste high to eyeball high. (We) got to work with our machetes to see if we could do it,” said Corbin
Corbin, Braman and a group of volunteers began chopping out a course by hand, and the first meet was held shortly after.
Since then, the field has grown and changed.
In 2013 the Leon County Commission invested $250,000 into the field. $125,000 was general revenue and $125,000 came from the tourism development tax. The course has been widened to meet national standards. It’s also now fit with fiber-optic cables, a jumbo Tron for spectators, and areas along the course for coaches and families to watch.
"It's not just a clock up there and it's, ‘go run we'll see you in a couple minutes.’ There are people screaming and yelling and bells are going off,” said Amanda Heidecker, with Leon County Tourism Development.
Between its inaugural season in 2009 and its most recent complete season in 2016, the park has hosted three national championships, five state high school championships and five regional championships.
In that same time, the park has generated more than $20 million in director visitor spending; $8 million alone was brought in in 2016.
"What happens is we bring thousands of people who stay here, stay in our hotels, spend their dollars in our restaurants,” said Braman.
"Obviously when you bring in thousands of people, that number is generally pretty high,” said Heidecker.
And the numbers are only expected to grow.
In the coming years Apalachee Regional Park is slated to host several big time meets including the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championship in December, the FHSAA State Championship in 2018 and the NCAA Championship in 2021.
With those events, and more, county staff estimate $24 million in direct visitor spending in the next five years, along with attracting 30,000 athletes and 67,000 visitors.
The park has surpassed expectations of both athletes and its founders.
"Anybody that comes here say's 'I've never seen anything like it,’” said Braman.
"I literally get chills. Because this place started as just nothing,” said Corbin.
And, more enhancements are still on the way.
In October, the County Commission approved staff to move forward with plans for Stage 1 of the Apalachee Regional Park Masterplan.
Specifically for the cross country field, plans include permanent restrooms, a new awards and events stage and a community gathering pavilion. For the park as a whole, plans include hiking and biking trails, a paddle trail at Lake Lafayette, wildlife observation, a dog park, disc golf and an air field.
Stage one is expected to cost $5.1 million.