On a typically hot, humid Georgia day, Earl Ehrhart stands on the deck outside the temporary office building overlooking LakePoint Sporting Community. Ehrhart, a former state representative, is now the CEO of LakePoint, a 1,400-acre development in Emerson, Ga, a town of 1,200 people about 70 miles south of Chattanooga.
Below him, instructors are teaching a small group of girls on one of the 10 sand volleyball courts inside the Rally Volleyball area. Right next door is the Terminus Wake Park, where visitors, who pay $35 for two hours, are lined up to try out wakeboarding, wakeskating, water skiing and kneeboarding in one of the three lakes that make up the 20-acre water park. Riders are towed via cables that pull them around the oval-shaped bodies of water dotted with ramps and rails for performing tricks. The only larger such facility in the world is in Malaysia.
In the background, next to the 14 completed multi-purpose fields designed for such sports as soccer, lacrosse, 7-on-7 football, eight baseball teams -- all players under 17 -- are competing on the four diamonds currently in operation in a Perfect Game tournament. Younger age groups have already played in the 56-day tournament, which has been held seven days a week at LakePoint and satellite fields around Atlanta. To date, daily attendance at LakePoint alone has averaged 4,200 people through the gates for baseball, including parents, players, siblings and college and professional scouts.
All fields are covered in bright-green artificial turf that makes rain pretty much a non-issue; the fields are ready to play only minutes after any rain stops.
LakePoint, located off Interstate 75 next to Lake Allatoona, officially opened for business four weeks ago, but the Terminus opened a year ago, and Rally has already hosted two national level volleyball tournaments.
Today, however, the parking lot is nearly filled with cars bearing license plates from Illinois, Iowa and Florida. It's the most cars Ehrhart has seen to date for baseball, and he says he is a little worried the lot might fill up.
"I've never seen it that full. I don't know what we will do when we have a soccer or lacrosse tournament or when the next four (baseball) fields are done later this summer," he says.
Despite his statement, Ehrhart is smiling like a kid with a brand-new toy because he's not really worried. LakePoint is a dream come true for him, one that started about five years ago. It was a dream shared by Neal Freeman, a real estate developer who was planning to build a similar complex. The architect both were using individually suggested they get together and the idea took off.
When finished in late 2016, LakePoint will be the largest such complex in the country and will be home to:
• Nine-lane track with natural grass infield for FIFA-sanctioned soccer
• 28 hotels
• About 100 restaurants
• 16 major-league sized ballfields, about that many youth-sized fields, softball fields
• 14 multi-purpose fields that can host soccer and lacrosse matches, but can be outfitted for 81 volleyball courts
• 300,000 indoor facility
• Movie theater
• Zipline course
• Bowling ally
• Nine-hole executive golf course
• Ropes course
• Tennis training center
• Shopping and entertainment village called Boomtown.
Along with Ehrhart and Freeman, Lakepoint has seven other board members, including former Braves manager Bobby Cox, current Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost.
A veteran of the travel sports world thanks to his own children, Ehrhart dreamt of a sports complex that would allow parents to "stay and play," providing everything from hotels to restaurants to laundry facilities to things for parents and siblings to do during the three to seven days of normal tournament play. Even attend a worship service.
"How many times did you have to drive an hour away, only to lose a family or two who get lost? Or you get back to the hotel and put a quarter in a laundry machine and it doesn't work so you wash uniforms in the tub?" Ehrhart asks.
With an expected finish date of in 2016, LakePoint will be a one-stop destination for the serious sports-minded families with athletes dreaming of college scholarships.
"Sports travel tourism is a fast-growing segment," Ehrhart says. "Even in a down economy, parents will spend money on their children. Today, kids focus on one sport and the family will spend between $15,000 and $50,000 on travel, uniforms, equipment."
In the two-story building in the center of the baseball quad, college and professional scouts on computers keep up with the prospects on the field. Scouts who couldn't make the trip are watching the games live via online streaming.
David Beckley, assistant baseball coach at The Citadel, looks forward to the day when the remaining 12 fields are completed. He has taken a break from scouting to grab some lunch at Doug's Restaurant, a meat-and-three situated in downtown Emerson about a driver and a 3-iron from LakePoint's office. Doug's is where Bobby Cox eats every time he visits.
"The facility is state-of-the art," Beckley says of LakePoint, "but, to be honest, we are still driving to the other fields, sometimes an hour and half away. It will be better when it's finished."
About 200 of the 1,400 LakePoint's acres are completed or under construction. In addition to the sport complexes, hotels and restaurants, LakePoint will have an entertainment village called Boomtown. Its plans call for a tower that will include a vertical roller-coaster and event rental space on top for team parties and special occasions.
Plans are to one day host concerts at LakePoint, as well. Two weeks ago, it hosted an impromptu World Cup viewing party on one of the high-definition scoreboards attached to one of the multi-purpose fields.
"We had about 200 people show up," Ehrhart says. "It was fun."
In addition to leasing to established sports groups, LakePoint has partnered with companies like Shaw Sports Turf, Musco Lighting and Coca-Cola, which will build a Powerade Advanced Hydration Lab on site.
Almost all the playing surfaces are covered in sports turf from Shaw, which is using LakePoint as both a research facility and show place for HydroChill, which it says is 50 percent cooler than other artificial grass surfaces. Musco has installed LED lighting that focuses the light down, doing away with glare and the chance of an athlete losing a fly ball in them.
A year-old study by Georgia Tech estimates that the expected 6 million visitors to LakePoint will generate $520 million in revenue annually, according Ehrhart. The complex is privately funded, Ehrhart says, but Bartow County and the state have offered "the usual tax incentives" for things like roads and abatements. He says Bartow will see about $20 million in tax revenues and the state will garner $50 million each year.
In addition, 26,000 jobs are being generated by the project and 12,000 people will work at LakePoint when completed, he says.
The Perfect Game tournament alone has resulted in 50,000 hotels rooms booked at 77 Atlanta area hotels, he says. The Georgia Tech study estimated that events at LakePoint will generate 1.8 million rooms per year, but that was based on 17 sports and not 44.
"And we are always adding things," Ehrhart says. "Some are licenses, like we might have an Ultimate [disc] tournament, but most are leases."
Colleen Craig, CEO of Rally Volleyball says, "There is no place like this ... inland."
Created in 2013, Rally is led by "King of the Beach" volleyball star Sinjin Smith and, like most of the groups that are part of the LakePoint complex, it's a tenant, signed to a 20-year lease with the real estate arm of the complex. Perfect Game USA, the premiere national amateur baseball showcase and tournament-organizing agency, will be relocating its home office from Iowa to LakePoint in the coming months.
In all, 44 sports will have homes, either permanently or on a part-time basis. Almost all are already established entities with proven histories, which was a key ingredient in getting LakePoint off the ground, Ehrhart says. Having Perfect Game on board made pitching the idea to banks much easier, Ehrhart says.
"That was the whole basis between Neal and I. It was not 'Build it and they will come' dream. I could go to a bank and show them what Perfect Game -- which has 13 years of doing this -- did in Jupiter, Fla., or San Diego. You couldn't do something like this on the 'build it and they will come' model."
In fact, once the ball got rolling, the LakePoint mantra became "we have to build it because they are coming."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...