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Closing time: It's last call for College Park

Posted: February 22, 2018 11:12 a.m.
Updated: February 23, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Lindsay Jennings/C-I

STUDENTS FROM UNC-CHARLOTTE play a game of corn hole in College Park. After 20 years in operation, the 60-acre plot of land will be repurposed by Carolina Cup officials.

Depending on your age and/or circumstances, College Park is either the greatest thing to have happened to the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races or,  it is Animal House comes to Camden.

When it came to the acreage on the backside of the Springdale Race Course which caters to the college-aged party crowd each spring, there was hardly any middle ground. Now, however, to paraphrase the late Pres. Richard Nixon, “You won’t have College Park to kick around anymore.”

After crunching the numbers and seeing a trend of College Park’s popularity declining over the recent past, the Carolina Cup Racing Association (CCRA) decided to disband the area, which opened in 1997, following this year’s 84th running of the Camden spring classic on Saturday, March 31.

Carolina Cup interim executive director John Cushman and assistant executive director Maggie Davis placed calls to those groups who had already secured parking spaces in College Park --- the first three rows of which went for $800 each, not including tickets ---, and College Park sponsors, which included the Music Farm of Columbia, which was scheduled to provide the musical entertainment for this year’s races --- announced earlier this month ---- to tell them of the decision and what options they would have at their disposal. Additionally, Cushman notified Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd of the change.

A majority of the sponsors, Cushman said, are sticking with the Carolina Cup and will move into the infield which will be a beehive of activity for a race meeting which is undergoing a complete overhaul from the way it does business. Parking spaces throughout the facility have been enlarged and in many cases, the price has been dropped to levels not seen in nearly 10 years. On the race course itself, a Camden-record $325,000 in purse money will be distributed in 2018. 

As for the Knockerball Steeplechase, which was to feature representatives from colleges with parking spaces in College Park going against each other in a series of heats leading up to a championship finale, the inflatable balls will now be part of the race-day scene in the infield but with new activities and uses planned for the hard plastic spheres.

It was Cushman who originally came up with the plan and unveiled College Park during his tenure as the Carolina Cup race director from 1990 through 1999. College Park was devised to help alleviate overcrowding in the infield section of the course which was bursting at the seams with both patrons and vehicles. Prior to College Park, college students and their race day parties were infringing on and spilling over onto the more sedate infield gatherings. the situation led to the Carolina Cup office receiving many a complaint in the days following the races from upset patrons.

The solution which Cushman came up with was to separate the two factions by giving college kids a place of their own on the backside of the course. In its heyday, College Park had more than 200 chartered buses which brought some 12,000 or more students from universities throughout the southeast to and from the races without their having to get behind the wheel of a car following a Saturday of watching races and partying.

Cushman said College Park came about as a necessity rather than some grand design on his part.

“It wasn’t hard because I didn’t come up with the idea out of brilliance or, creativity,” he said of shuttering College Park. “When I came up with it, I came up with the idea to save the event from self-destructing. The infield was getting so big. Then, (College Park) took on a life of its own and changed every year and expanded. Now, it’s shrinking.

“I look at this as an opportunity for us to do something fun and different and, maybe, bring a whole other demographic and set of people out here next year. I think it will create some curiosity and we’ll get people here next year. Not all that behavior in College Park was something that you would want to expose a lot of people to, either.”

As he sat on a chair inside his office located in the National Steeplechase Museum, Cushman said this was hardly a knee-jerk decision to pull the plug on College Park. From the perspective of a businessman, Cushman, the owner of the Tack Room in Camden, said this was a business decision which also contained safety-related issues.

“Last year, it was down 50 percent and it is down another 50 percent this year,” Cushman said of ticket and parking space sales in College Park. “It’s on its way out by itself but we decided that we would be proactive and go ahead and make the decision to make this last call for College Park. It’s either going to be very small or, it won’t be there at all this year. We have to talk to our customers and ask them what they want to do.

“I’m reacting to what our customers are telling us and, it’s a shrinking event.”

In its heyday, College Park attracted in upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 one-day residents. That number has dropped significantly of late. Some of the reasons for declining attendance were that some college students perceived the Carolina Cup as a “high risk” event in which law enforcement agencies patrolled the area, doing their job, and arresting underage drinkers or, those whose behavior got out of hand during the course of the day.

The Carolina Cup, Cushman pointed out, is not alone in events at which those under the age of 21 would use to break the law. “St. Patrick’s Day down in Five Points,” he said. “They have the same problem as we have with underage drinking and the ensuing number of arrests and problems that come along with that.”

Cushman said the races always have been and will continue to be a good steward of the community and said cooperating with the authorities is something on which the CCRA prides itself in playing host to the largest annual one-day event in Kershaw County. In 2000, a National Steeplechase Association-record crowd of an estimated 71,000 patrons made their way through Springdale’s gates.

While the behavior of the vast majority of those who attend the Carolina Cup is not and never has been an issue, Cushman admitted that College Park has had its share of problems when it comes to conduct. “Ninety percent of our problems at this event, historically, have come out of that part of our event (College Park.) The rest of our event runs really, really smooth,” he said. 

“The underage drinking and the problems that come out of that area … I’m kind of looking forward to a little smoother running event to be honest with you. I used to enjoy the chaos. I’m looking for smoothness now.”

What will become of College Park in the future? Cushman said that is something which he and his staff will discuss in the days following this year’s Carolina Cup. He looks forward to hearing feedback from patrons as to their ideas as to what should become of the acreage on the backside of the race course. 

While college students may still want to purchase parking spaces in the area in the future, it will be a far cry from what it had been for the past 20 years. What Cushman did want to emphasize was that the CCRA is not running the college set out of town.

“We are certainly not telling these college kids that you can’t come to the races,” he said. “We’re just not devoting 60 acres, bands and resources to an event that, obviously, has run its course. I think the event and the (CCRA) board will get positive feedback from this because there is some negativity which goes along with that part of the event.”

Using his catch-phrase of “If you’re standing still, somebody’s going to run you over,” Cushman talked with pride of having grown the Carolina Cup with the advent of College Park. Times change, however, and the former four-time NSA champion jockey said College Park had run its course.

“We can only operate this event as best we can and do the best of what we think is best for the future of the Carolina Cup,” he said in relation to the event and College Park, in particular. 

“It was a fun way for this event to go for awhile. We had some huge numbers there but life moves on; things change. We have creative people here now and we’re going to come up with a way to re-brand and refocus this event. 

“Maybe, we can think along the lines of bringing back that area that has that Colonial Cup feel to it and an area that is family-friendly and kid-oriented. We really haven’t dealt with that, yet. We’re dealing with what’s on our plate right now.”

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