Parents dream of their child someday competing in the big leagues, as an MLB pitcher, an NFL quarterback or an NBA center. For most kids, the journey begins on fields and courts at the local recreation department, where their skills improve and the level of competition increases as they advance. Youth team-based athletics tend to be the primary focus of recreation departments. Columbia County has well-developed baseball, softball, football and basketball programs, plus rugby and lacrosse, in its mix of offerings.

 When Blanchard Woods Park was first conceptualized on paper as a premier soccer complex…park planners envisioned diverse uses for the 135-acre property.

Columbia County has a history, however, of thinking beyond the playing field. Disc golf courses at Patriots Park and Wildwood Park appeal to people of all ages who prefer self-directed sports and leisure activities. The impressive cross-country course at Blanchard Woods serves runners at the high school and collegiate levels in addition those who train on their own. Facilities at Wildwood for fishing tournaments on Clarks Hill, racquetball courts at Bobby Waters Gymnasium and a beach volleyball court at Riverside Park demonstrate forward thinking and openness to forms of recreation and competition that don’t fit into the traditional scope of programming.

Even back in 2005, when Blanchard Woods Park was first conceptualized on paper as a premier soccer complex with a soccer stadium designed to host collegiate level games, park planners envisioned diverse uses for the 135-acre property. Many citizens don’t know that those original plans included a skate park and BMX track. Ten years later, this past March, that vision was realized when the skate park and BMX track, located behind the stadium, opened to the public.

Skate 2The entire space…was constructed not just to serve recreational  riders, but to accommodate the numbers of people associated with state, regional and national BMX competitions.

County commissioners approved the SPLOST-funded, $1.5 million project in October 2012. With input from the Augusta BMX Parents Association and USA BMX—the governing body for the sport of BMX racing—Pillar Design Studios developed plans. The entire space in which the track and skate park are located were constructed not just to serve recreational riders, but to accommodate the numbers of people associated with state, regional and national BMX competitions. Adequate parking, lighting, restrooms and spectator seating had to be considered in addition to actual track layout and obstacles.

Prior to proceeding, the county also initiated a partnership with Augusta BMX Parents Association. Agreeing to move its program from the track in downtown Augusta to the new facility at Blanchard Woods, the Augusta BMX Parents Association changed its name to Blanchard Woods BMX Parents Association. In exchange for use of the BMX track to stage practices and races sanctioned by USA BMX, the Parents Association maintains the facility and promotes the sport in the community. υ

The county broke ground on the track and skate park in May of last year with the goal of completing the project within a few short months. While the skate park opened in January, rain delays and an early January incident of vandalism put the opening of the BMX track slightly off schedule. The grand opening was at last held on March 28 and the facility has experienced a high volume of interest from those entrenched in the sport of BMX racing and those curious about it. John Luton, parks and recreation manager for Columbia County, says, “We’re pleased with the amount of use so far. We’ve got a lot of new riders and families coming out. The location has given the track a lot of exposure.”

Because it was built to USA BMX standards, the track will host around 35-45 sanctioned local races per year. Local races attract racers within an approximate two-hour radius who want to increase their point earnings. In addition to local races, the track is poised to host one to two state races, one to two regional races and one national race each year. This draw will not only generate excitement around a growing action sport, but it will also increase tax revenue via the sports tourism niche. The entire space…was constructed not just to serve recreational riders, but to accommodate the numbers of people associated with state, regional and national BMX competitions.

BMX—bicycle motocross—racing involves a one-lap sprint called a moto over various obstacles and challenges on a groomed track from the start gate to the finish line. Up to eight racers plunge down the start hill at one time, gathering speed that will carry them into the first turn. A win can help a racer advance to the next proficiency level and earn him points to improve his ranking.

The track at Blanchard Woods features 1,170 feet of obstacles that meet the highest standards for course design. “It’s a national level track. It’s long. The obstacles are very challenging,” says Anthony Tedesco, president of the Blanchard Woods BMX Parents Association and assistant track operator. “It’s got a long first straight with a lot of obstacles before the first turn.” Step-ups, doubles, triples, step-downs, a rhythm section at the end and table tops, in conjunction with the three turns, ensure variety and lots of opportunity to hone skills and catch big air.

Skate 3 “Step-ups, doubles, triples, step-downs, a rhythm section at the end and table tops, in conjunction with the three turns, ensure variety and lots of opportunity to hone skills and catch big air.

When the track isn’t being used for official practices and races, it’s open to the public from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. each day. Families can bring their bikes and helmets and ride the course on their own. While USA BMX rules and safety guidelines apply during sanctioned events, public usage is on a use-at-your-own-risk basis. Helmets are required and it’s recommended that riders wear long pants, closed-toe shoes and long sleeves. Often if the track operators are around, they go out and interact with folks. They give pointers and answer questions about the sport. They also supply bikes and helmets free of charge to anyone without equipment. 

“It’s an inexpensive sport that requires very little investment,” Tedesco says. “We want people to try it for free,” he adds, noting an aspect of BMX that is absent in team sports: “Nobody sits on the bench. Everybody gets to race.” Though a USA BMX annual membership is required for anyone who wishes to participate fully in competitions, the first practice session and first race are free. Blanchard Park BMX Parents Association invites everyone who wants to experience BMX competition to come try it out before committing financially. Of course, they welcome all spectators as well.

“From a sports tourism standpoint, the track is going to be very successful,” says Luton. Local races are typically scheduled for Saturday nights. The summer series of local races began on June 1 and expands racing opportunities to include Monday nights too. On July 11, Blanchard Woods will host a Georgia State Qualifying BMX race.

And in May, USA BMX announced that Blanchard Woods will host the 2015 Gold Cup East finals, a three-day national race event, October 2-4. It’s very likely that the acceptance of the county’s bid will ensure a full five-year series of the national race at the park. “When choosing a location for the Gold Cup finals, we not only look for a great facility but also a solid partnership in tourism to promote the destination,” says USA BMX’s chief operations officer John David. “The Columbia County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau have been great to work with and the new Blanchard Park track is a first-class BMX facility. We are thrilled to bring a major bike racing competition to the Augusta area for the first time and look forward to returning year after year. The complete race schedule can be viewed at http://www.usabmx.com/tracks/1907 under the “schedule” tab. 

Columbia County is building its sports tourism resume with the BMX track, no doubt. The ripple effect from events at this venue will increase the chances of winning bids to bring top tier competition in other sports to the county. As a result, monies in the public coffers to fund additional projects will multiply. But this non-traditional facility also reaches out to a segment of athletes often forgotten by traditional recreation and leisure programs. “Diversifying our customer base with a non-traditional facility is exciting,” says Luton. Folding the new skate park and BMX track into the Blanchard Woods soccer complex puts action sports athletes on the same playing field with their traditional sports counterparts. It’s a winning game plan.

This article appears in the June/July 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.