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Birmingham seeks to be Festival host with the most

By David Pickle

When last-minute issues made a change of sites necessary for the Division II Winter National Championships Festival, the city of Birmingham saw opportunity rather than problems.

Birmingham’s CrossPlex will host the Division II track and swimming events during the Division II Winter National Championships Festival. It adjoins the Harris Arena, which will host wrestling

The need for a switch occurred last summer, and Birmingham immediately stepped to the plate, touting Southern hospitality, a broad menu of things to see and do, and ideal facilities for the March 5-9 event.

Almost ironically, the last-minute arrangement may end up being one of the best.

It all starts, of course, with quality facilities, and student-athletes in the Festival’s five national championships – men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, and wrestling – will compete at the CrossPlex, a high-end aquatic and indoor track facility. The CrossPlex  adjoins the 5,000-seat Harris Arena, which will be used for wrestling.

 “The CrossPlex, which is a state of the art facility, and the Harris Arena is an incredible place,” said Nathan Salant, commissioner of the Gulf South Conference, which is co-hosting the event. “It’s arguably the best such facility in the Southeast. This will be an opportunity for fans to walk through a main entrance and never go outside until they’re ready to leave. If it’s raining or whatever, you don’t have to leave the premises to get anything you need.”

Not only do the facilities adjoin, they are also highly proximate. Amy Reis, NCAA associate director of championships and alliances, said all are within a two-minute walk of one another – and that may be overstating the transit time.

The aquatics center in the CrossPlex is among the best facilities in the Southeast.

But beyond being convenient, the CrossPlex also offers a proven site and staff. The aquatics center, the track and the coliseum have all hosted high-quality competition before – sometimes concurrently. The track has hosted conference championships for Division I’s Conference USA and Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose student-athletes have posted record times on the CrossPlex’s hydraulically banked Mondo track.

The city of Birmingham, which owns and operates the CrossPlex, was looking for speed when it installed the track in the new facility in September 2011.

“Some of the world’s best athletes compete on Mondo surfaces and Mayor William Bell and the city of Birmingham wanted to put the best product in the CrossPlex,” said city spokesperson Apr

il Odom at the time. “Mondo has always offered a consistent product and when you tell athletes or coaches that you have a Mondo track, they all want an opportunity to compete on that surface.”

The benefits will go beyond the facilities, however.

Salant, whose conference basketball tournament will overlap the Festival, noted a spike in wrestling interest that has existed since the Festival was relocated last year.

“Alabama is state that is not known for wrestling,” he said, “and this has galvanized the high school and amateur wrestling community to a degree that really has not been seen in my 20 years in Birmingham. It’s given them something to focus on that they’ve never had before.”

And although swimming and track are more established in Birmingham, Salant said the attitude is not business-as-usual for those sports.

“There’s all kind of volunteering going on,” he said. “People want to be involved. The word’s out. There’s excitement.”

Some of that excitement is manifested in local business support, such as where companies are helping with volunteers. Beyond tangible help, though, local leaders said the excitement for the Festival will show through in Birmingham’s hospitality.

“One thing about the CrossPlex is that we greet you from the time you pull into the parking lot until you get ready to go home at night,” said CrossPlex director Kevin Moore. “We’ll walk you to your car. If it’s raining, we’re going to pop the umbrella. If you’re carrying your baby, we’re going to make sure you get to your car safe.”

In fact, Moore said the primary feedback from CrossPlex patrons involves the way they were treated during their stay.

“Of all the emails we receive, what people mention the most is the hospitality – how pleasant the experience was just because of the people.”

The Festival should score with fans and parents because of the many things to see and do in Birmingham.

Conference USA and the Southwestern Athletic Conference have conducted their indoor track and field championships at the CrossPlex.

The city’s Civil Rights Institute (520 16th Street N) is a nationally known attraction that documents the well-known struggle of African-American citizens in Birmingham to becoming full participants in the city’s government and business community. The Birmingham Museum of Art (2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Dr.) is another cultural high point.

For fun, there’s the Barber Motorsports Museum (6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway), which features all manner of relic automobiles and motorcycles. For basketball fans, the Gulf South basketball tournament will be March 7-10 at the Pete Hanna Center in nearby Homewood.

And then, lest the northern visitors forget, there is such a thing as spring. Sunshiny days with highs climbing into the 60s are anticipated for most of the week. Since Birmingham is home to two Robert Trent Jones Trail facilities, that could mean an excellent golf opportunity.

“The Birmingham area is also spectacular for jogging and running,” Salant said. “There’s Red Mountain State Park, which has more than 12 miles of fantastic trails.”

In short, filling time will not be an issue.

“There’s so much here that people are going to be trying to figure out what to do next rather than what am I going to do while I’m here,” Salant said. “There’s just an endless variety of exciting choices.”