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Jeremiah Milton (blue) takes on Luiz Alvarado (red) at the Civic Center in Lake Charles, La., Wednesday, Dec.11, 2019. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)

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Last week USA Boxing announced it was bringing its national championship tournaments back to Lake Charles in December after the city hosted the event for the first time last year.

Lake Charles was chosen ahead of Dallas, Detroit and other big cities last year and earned high marks from USA Boxing on how the event was run. The boxing championships are one of a growing number of sports tourism events that are choosing Southwest Louisiana as a host.

Eric Zartler, sales director with the Lake Charles/ Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the area has become a prime location for sporting events over the past decades due to the willingness of area government bodies, facilities management groups, hotels and restaurants to work together.

“I think one of the things we have here, something we take a lot of pride in, is partnerships,” he said.

“We have great partnerships with the cities, with the parks departments, with the Police Jury, with the cities of Lake Charles and Sulphur, with the venues such as Burton Coliseum and the Civic Center. Without these partnerships, we can’t bring in all of the events we have now. You look at LHSAA basketball, it is a great partnership between the Police Jury, Burton Complex and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. You look at 19 years of the softball tournament in Sulphur, that doesn’t happen without a partnership between Sulphur Parks and Recreation, the city of Sulphur and the CVB, everyone working together.”

Zartler said the success of the state high school softball tournament, which came to Sulphur in 2001, jumpstarted the area’s growth as a sports event host.

“Once everyone saw the benefits of the partnerships, everyone wanted in and the ball started rolling. You look at the success Sulphur Parks and Recreation has had over the years bringing in baseball and softball events, then what happened here a couple of years ago in Lake Charles, with Ward 3 Recreation, the Police Jury, CVB and the city of Lake Charles to build and maintain nine fields to bring in more tournaments and events.

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Joseph Hicks (red) takes on Javier Martinez (blue) at the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, La., Monday, Dec.16, 2019. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)

“We had 24 tournaments on the books this spring, that is unheard of. The first weekend of March, we had the biggest tournament that was not part of a bigger event. Without the success of SPAR over the past 20 years with LHSAA, I don’t know if everything else falls into place. (Former director) Norman Farr was definitely ahead of his time in some of the things he did with SPAR. We are fortunate to work with these organizations to bring in events.”

Zartler said volunteers are the key to making events run smoothly once they come to the area.

“Volunteers are a huge part of it,” he said. “For the LHSAA basketball events, we have a team host program (local residents “host” teams during their stay in Lake Charles by helping provide transportation, arranging entertainment events, meals and other duties to help visiting players and coaches). What has happened is the teams have adopted their hosts and made them part of programs.

“This year was unfortunate in that we did not have the private schools here, but the ones that have been here before called the people who hosted them before and invited them to their championship games, asked them to sit on the bench with the team. And they went. We have had volunteers buy championship rings for kids that could not afford them. We have had volunteers attend championship celebrations in New Orleans, Anacoco, Baton Rouge. I think our hospitality and partnerships set us apart.”

This year’s boys basketball tournament finished with no fans in the stands for the final two days. Doors were an hour from opening when Gov. Jon Bel Edwards issued an order banning large gatherings.

“That was one of the toughest things I have been a part of, to tell a kid who has been working for four years to get to that point and have to tell them that their parents, classmates and friends could not come in to watch them play,” Zartler said.

“Hats off to LHSAA director Eddie Bonine for making the tough decision to let them play, we were one of only a few states that were able to finish. The kids were able to finish what they set out to do. The area did a great job, from our hotel partners to our restaurant partners. They put the games on TV for the families. Our local sheriff’s department took the kids of principals to restaurants and sat with them so they could watch the games, then brought them back to Burton to celebrate with their parents. The rules had to be followed and tough decisions had to be made but I think in the end we did a great job of welcoming the families with open arms.

“All the game day operations and perks were the same for the kids. They worked hard to get there and we were going to treat them as well as possible. That was the message from Bonine and we did everything we could. I can’t say enough about Mr. Bonine and the LHSAA for sticking with their commitment to the kids.”

Zartler said he’s ready to work with the LHSAA if dates for events for the next school year need to be moved.

“We are going to be as flexible as possible and do whatever we can. We will continue to work with them to meet their needs and make sure we can accommodate what we set out to do with them,” he said.

“Our immediate focus is on events we have lined up this summer, such as Future Stars baseball series. We have been following CDC guidelines and what other states are doing. There are some things such as cleaning bathrooms more often and wiping down dugouts that are going to be part of the new normal. Once we get the word that we can put kids back of the field safely, that is going to be a big part of getting closer to normalcy. Kids want to play and their parents want activities for them.”

Zartler said the pandemic has been costly to the tourism industry.

“We have lost over 20 sporting events from USSSA to the LHSAA baseball and softball tournaments, the PGA event that was going be held here for the first time,” he said.

“That’s about 17,000 room nights we have lost. Our event organizers are ready to get these events rolling again. USSSA has extended their season until late August and we were able to successfully book five additional dates with them. We are working on a junior college basketball event in December. We are always looking for new opportunities, including events we could help get started from the ground up.”

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