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Heritage or Hindrance? — Mississippi flag plays a role in state’s sports and economic development

Pearl’s Trustmark Park is in the hunt to host the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament, but in the end, the SEC says our state flag is a negative factor, officially making the Confederate symbol a financial liability

Since the mid 1990s, the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Hoover has been the site of the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament.

That may change next year.

The SEC has opened up the tournament for bids, and Trustmark Park in Pearl is one of a handful of cities in the Southeast competing.

Memphis; Montgomery, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Hoover; and Duluth, Ga., have submitted proposals. Craig Mattox, SEC assistant commissioner for championships, said last week that New Orleans possibly would join the fray, but had not as of last Wednesday.

Athletic directors at each of the SEC’s 12 member institutions will review the proposals at their meeting Aug. 18 and 19. The league’s baseball coaches will do the same at their annual meeting in early November.

The ADs will review them again in early December.

“I anticipate them making a decision then,” Mattox said.

Mattox said nothing is certain, but whichever city lands the Tournament will “most likely” sign a multi-year agreement with the Conference.

It would be a big fish to land.

A five-day event in late May, the Tournament’s eight sessions the past few years in Hoover’s Regions Park, which has a seating capacity of 10,000, have each been at or near capacity, bringing the total attendance for the event to nearly 100,000 fans.

Though neither Mattox nor officials with the Hoover Chamber of Commerce had available economic impact figures, simple math dictates that the financial jolt would be significant.

For example, the attendance every year at the Viking Classic in Madison is roughly 25 percent of that of the baseball tournament, and the PGA Tournament pumps $20 million into the metro Jackson economy.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Bill Powell, executive director of the Hoover Chamber. “We’re hopeful it stays here.”

Among the criteria Mattox said the SEC would evaluate within the proposals are hotels for teams, media and fans, locker room space, hospitality space, camera locations, parking and back-up sites in case weather forces the teams to double-up on games.

One criterion Pearl and the Jackson area will have all to itself is the Mississippi state flag, whose upper left corner features the symbol of the Confederacy.

Shortly after it announced the Tournament was up for grabs, the SEC said Mississippi’s flag would be a part of its overall evaluation process.

“It just depends on the facility and everything else that’s in the bid package. Not to say our stance on the flag issue isn’t important. But it will be a factor,” Mattox said.

All things being equal, would the flag deny Trustmark Park the Tournament if the bid-review process came down to Pearl and another city?

“Yes,” Mattox said.

Steve King, vice president of development and finance at Spectrum Capital, the Jackson-based firm that is spearheading Pearl’s proposal, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In 2001, Mississippians by almost a 2-1 margin voted to keep the flag as it is. At the time, some of the state’s biggest and most powerful business groups and trade associations threw their support behind changing it.

Efforts to change the flag by a vote of the Legislature before or since have gotten nowhere.

Another obstacle Pearl will have to overcome is size. Trustmark Park’s seating capacity is 8,480, second smallest of its competitors, ahead of Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium, which seats 7,000. Memphis’ Autozone Park is the largest facility, with a seating capacity of 12,500. Stadiums in the other cities seat at least 10,000.

Neither the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership (GJCP) nor the Rankin County Chamber of Commerce are involved in the bid process. GJCP’s executive director Duane O’Neill declined an interview for this story.

Rankin County Chamber executive director Gale Martin said his agency would do everything it could to help Spectrum.

“We would certainly support it,” he said.

There could also be a scheduling conflict to work around. Conference USA will holds its 2011 baseball tournament at Trustmark Park from May 25-29. Although the exact dates for the 2011 SEC Tournament have not been set, the 2010 version was held May 26-30.

“There has been some parks built in the last five to 10 years that could be a good site for us,” Mattox said. “Memphis has expressed a desire to bid on it for several years now. We decided to start from scratch and see what happens.”

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About Clay Chandler