It’s been in the planning stages since at least 2019, and likely on local leaders’ minds even longer. But on Wednesday, July 27, the City of Cullman offered residents their first significant look at the multimillion-dollar mixed-use sports and civic complex that will anchor the burgeoning recreational district on the city’s southwest side.
Calling the area a “district” is no longer a mere casual reference. With an ambitious eye toward marketing Cullman’s robust array of municipal sporting venues to the outside world, the city revealed that it’s rebranding the entire 140-acre municipal parks footprint that encompasses everything from Heritage Park (on the southeast) to Margaret Ingle Park (to the northwest) as a “Sports and Events District.”
If that name doesn’t exactly hit your ear with brand appeal, well, city leaders are aware. Nathan Anderson, director of Cullman Parks, Recreation, and Sports Tourism, said the city is readying a tourist-friendly name for the area; one that will appear in public-facing marketing materials to signal the appeal of the complex’s recreational offerings far beyond the confines of Cullman’s boundaries.
“We have about two years until the new indoor facility is open. So my goal is within the next six months to have the full branding guide complete, because at that point we will have to start marketing it under a brand name and booking the calendar,” he explained.
Like many aspects of the upcoming mixed-use complex, details on the logo-ready name for the district will come later. But where residents previously only had a vague idea of what type of indoor facility would replace the city’s former civic center (sold in 2019 to Desperation Church), they now have meaningful numbers to frame its scope.
The new sports and events center will occupy a 130,000-square-foot building sited on the vacant area adjacent to the new WildWater park across Main Avenue from Heritage Park. The complex will feature 10 basketball courts, 19 volleyball courts, a multipurpose floor area designed and automated to rapidly accommodate shows and events of varying scale (up to a maximum attendance of 6,500 people in a concert or conference setting), plus four breakout side rooms that can be reconfigured into a total of eight. “The gym,” the city said in a press release, “is designed to host large concerts, expositions, conventions, trade shows, sporting events and charity fundraisers.”
Sharing a first look at renderings of the new facility, Anderson said the city is aiming for flexibility, ease of access and the ability to accommodate both Cullman-area functions as well as out-of-town event guests who wish to reserve a share of the space. Crucially, he also said the new complex is intended to serve both paying tenants for major events as well as individuals, groups and organizations who, as in the past, reserved free or nominally-priced space inside the old civic center to host smaller-scale gatherings and activities.
“This space, compared to the space we formerly had, is about 10 times larger. and the beauty of the new space is that it can be divided back down to an area just about the size of the old civic center,” said Anderson. “So if you want to have the local trade shows, craft shows and meetings that people are accustomed to, we can definitely still accommodate that, and it would still feel intimate and full. But if we want to go more national and southeast-regional with a larger expo, we can open the entire thing up and it will accommodate that larger scale beautifully.”
The bottom line, he added, is to deliver both the familiar and the new — a way of serving local residents who rely on the parks department to fill a key community need, while giving outsiders a welcoming venue that can readily handle high-profile, high-attendance events.
“Locally, we want to serve every need we did before — and we want to offer more than we did before,” Anderson said. “We can do archery in this space; we do wrestling. We can do pickleball. There are so many things we are going to be able to introduce to Cullman youth in this facility, as well as the adults — not to mention people from out of town who lack the indoor facilities to support the diversity of events in their own towns that we’ll be able to provide.”
The rebrand isn’t meant as a fresh coat of paint on familiar assets; rather, it’s timed to coincide with the construction of the new sports and civic complex — the anchor piece in the district’s concentrated matrix of amenities. When the facility is complete — hopefully, said Cullman Mayor Woody Jacobs, sometime in 2024 — the city will aggressively court both regional and far-flung tourism by amplifying events and services the parks department already provides, as well as additional ones made possible by the new complex.
“People will stay in our hotel rooms, they’ll eat at our restaurants, and they’ll shop at the great businesses that we have in Cullman,” said Jacobs via the event’s press materials. “This new sports and events facility will have an incredible economic impact on our community. It will be great for creating jobs, helping the local economy, and meeting the needs of the growing population of youth in our community.”
“This will put us among the top players in indoor youth sports in the entire nation,” added Anderson, referencing Cullman’s already stout reputation as a regional host of outdoor baseball, high school track, and similar tournaments that bring new visitors — and their dollars — to the city every year.
City leaders aren’t ready to put a firm price tag on the project’s total cost, though combined with the recently opened WildWater park, it will easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. Jacobs said much of the funding for the indoor facility has already been secured, thanks in part to the city’s $3.1 million sale of the old civic center, as well as a $30 million capital improvement bond issue that the city secured last spring.
The city has contracted with Birmingham-based CCR Architecture & Interiors to perform design work for the new sports and events center; Jacobs said fall of 2024 is the tentative goal for opening the center to the public.