GULFPORT -- Pings from the aluminum bats will resonate from the Gulfport Sportsplex this weekend, but regional business leaders are hoping the real home runs will be hit in the surrounding community.
Normally a slower time of year before tourism picks up along the Coast, this weekend's inaugural Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic is projected to be an economic engine and bring in more than $1 million for the city and surrounding areas.
In addition to 40 Mississippi high school teams, the tournament will also feature 10 college teams, all staying in area hotels, eating food from area restaurants and shopping in, you guessed it, area stores.
"This type of event could just be huge for our city," said Lisa Bradley, who is the Gulfport business and economic development coordinator in addition to executive director of the Gulfport Main Street Association. "This is such a big deal and also shows what we're capable of hosting."
Many times, tournaments held at various complexes will be over in a day's time, so travelers show up early at the complex and then head home in the evening without really venturing away from the ball fields. Bradley said Assistant Director of Leisure Services, David D'Aquilla, has done a good job of getting other agencies involved in the planning process and believes the three-day tournament will pay big dividends for the Coast economy.
"When you look at the list of teams, these aren't people from a drive-in market," she said. "These are people who came here for a specific reason, but if we're successful we will have driven them into other parts of our city. They'll see Jones Park and downtown Gulfport and there's a really good chance they'll come back to visit.
"I don't think there's anything but positivity that can come from this event."
In addition to advertising in the tournament's program, Bradley said the Main Street Association and other area businesses assisted with welcome bags for the teams, which feature walking maps of downtown and Gulfport Premium Outlets, among other items.
"A lot of times people will go to the Sportsplex, and it's a really nice facility, but they don't branch out from there," she said. "We've decided that's such a great resource for us, we should really be using that to drive the economy down here."
Linda Hornsby, director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association, said at least three area hotels are at capacity this weekend because of the tournament. While ongoing Mardi Gras festivities are also playing a role in rooms being filled, she said the uptick in occupancy can be attributed to the tournament.
"This is just a win-win for everyone," she said.
Jamie Straus, sales and catering manager at the Holiday Inn on U.S. 49, is excited to see the extent of the tournament's ripple effect.
"It's absolutely a boost," she said. "Mardi Gras with all the parades has also helped, but this is great for our hotel business. ... We have sold out for the last few nights. There's a lot of parents who are coming to watch the girls play, too."
Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau Director of Sports Sales and Marketing Torye Hurst hopes the tournament will also attract locals to the Sportsplex.
"Some of the girls can really wing it," he said. "This isn't your father's slow pitch league, that's for sure."
College action begins at 11 a.m. today with UT-San Antonio facing Louisiana-Lafayette.