For the past 25 years, the United Kennel Club has held its Winter Classic raccoon hunt in Albany, Ga.
That changes in January, when Batesville will host the event.
An animal generally considered a nuisance could generate a lot of revenue for Batesville and Panola County.
An analysis of the event’s finances performed two years ago found that it had an economic impact of $2.3 million. It was a nice shot in the arm for Albany, population 80,000. It has the chance to be one of the biggest events — at least financially — Panola County has ever seen, said Sonny Simmons, CEO of the Panola Partnership.
“We don’t have anything close to it,” he said in an interview one recent Friday morning. The event that comes closest in comparison is an Ole Miss football weekend.
Attendance at the three-day Winter Classic has averaged 10,000 people the past couple of years, based on figures from the UKC.
“When you’re talking about that number of people coming into town, the first thing you have to do is make sure you have the proper accommodations,” Simmons said. “It’ll be a collaborative effort to help support this thing.”
Hotels within a 50-mile radius will likely be full, Simmons said, as will the surrounding state parks and RV campgrounds. Some of Batesville’s hotels have already agreed to alter their pet policies to allow the coonhounds to stay in rooms with their owners.
Todd Kellam, UKC vice president of events, said the Winter Classic’s relocation was not the result of a single factor.
“It was a couple of things,” he said. “We were trying to get the hunt more centrally located and into a nicer facility, like the Batesville Civic Center. That’s not to imply that the Albany grounds were somehow not up to code. It’s just that there’s no other coon hunt that’s running out of a facility with that stadium atmosphere. And to be able to put everything under one roof and to have that kind of atmosphere is something we’re really curious about trying.
“Plus, we had three major events already down in the southeastern part of the country, and those three hunts were competing for entries a little bit. By moving it a little further (west), we’ll reach some people we weren’t reaching previously.”
What jumped out at UKC officials about Batesville, Kellam said, was the ease with which hunters could stage at the Civic Center before fanning out to Panola County’s hardwood river bottoms,hills, hollows and what seems like unlimited Delta farmland to the west.
“That’s pretty important when we’re sending 300 guys into the woods every night,” Kellam said. “That area and the access to the highways couldn’t be simpler. The hotels are all within a mile of the fairgrounds. It’s really set up good for a hunt like this. Batesville is bigger than what you’d call a small town, but it has that rural feel to it.”
Tanya Raab, UKC’s vice president of corporate operations, said preliminary preparation for the Winter Classic had already started, mainly consisting of settling on a layout for the Civic Center and meeting with local coon hunting clubs. “We got them up to speed as far as how things are going to go,” she said.
Batesville’s location — about an hour from the Memphis airport — being surrounded by four-lane highways and its abundant hunting property have given it an opportunity that communities with populations less than 10,000 people rarely get, Simmons said. “I think the preparation we put into it now will hold the key to letting everybody know that we’re ready and open for business, but most importantly that we can accommodate that number of people. Albany, Ga., is about 10 times our size population-wise. I think it’ll give us a tremendous amount of exposure. It’s a national event so it’ll be publicized pretty heavily.”