On your mark: Gans Creek readies for SEC debut this fall

The Gans Creek Recreation Area’s new cross country running course is shown Friday in Columbia. The Greg Hall Champions Plaza will host the SEC Championship this fall and the NCAA Championship in 2025.

Track and cross country coach Jamin Swift knew some of his colleagues would be skeptical as they brought their teams of runners to the Missouri State High School Championships in 2019. For the first time, the cross country meet was taking place at the Gans Creek Recreation Area instead of the state capital.

The coach at Raymore-Peculiar High School, southeast of Kansas City, Swift described his colleagues as “very traditional.” He knew they “didn’t want to lose the state meet that has been hosted in Jeff City for decades.”

Swift said he and his colleagues were quickly sold.

“Columbia really did put in a first-class cross country course,” he said.

This spring it’s going to get better as construction begins on the Greg Hall Champions Plaza and race headquarters building, following the City Council’s approval in February.

The plaza was funded by donations raised by private citizens in memory of Greg Hall, a photographer and writer who covered Missouri high school track and cross country. The race headquarters building was funded by MU Athletics in partnership with the city.

The new buildings will provide space for reporters to cover events and major athletes to take their promotional photos. This will allow the course to host the SEC Championship this fall and the NCAA Cross Country Championship in 2025. Mike Griggs, the parks and recreation director said the goal is to finish construction by Oct. 1.

Runners aren’t the only ones excited by the latest improvements to the complex. So are civic leaders who see a badly needed boom for the tourism and hospitality trade.

Megan McConachie, strategic communication manager at Visit Columbia MO, is anticipating an “ongoing economic impact” as the reputation of the course “spreads throughout the cross country community.”

“That just results in repeat business or new business that’s even larger than what we’ve been able to book in the past,” she said.

“I just want the people of Columbia, and in this region, to realize how special it is for us to have this course in our backyard,” said Brad Loos, MU associate athletic director for development. “It really is one of the nicest cross country courses in the country and it’s going to bring a ton of business to the community and just be a huge positive for the city of Columbia, so personally, I’m really excited about it.”

High school runners and coaches give the Gans Creek course high marks because it’s flatter and faster than the one in Jefferson City. There’s also plenty of room, allowing competitors to be more visible to spectators and see their placement on video boards.

Kirkwood High School coach Wayne Baldwin hopes it will help others recognize cross country as a valuable sport and encourage others to be a part of the community.

“It’s about time that the cross country athletes and track athletes were afforded the same advantages that the football, basketball, (and) baseball folks get,” Baldwin said, “and Gans Creek has done that.”

Allowing high school students to run on a course also used by college students is exciting for them, Park Hill South coach A.J. Roth said. But he’s excited about what it means for MU.

“It’s gonna be nice (for) Mizzou to have a course that is kind of a higher level,” Roth said. “They can host the NCAA (championships) and they can keep making our state meet more enjoyable for our student-athletes.”

Ever since the course opened in 2019, races have been drawing spectators who visit local stores, restaurants and hotels. The SEC championships and the NCAA championships promise to take the economic impact to a new level.

“I mean events like this, especially something like the event that’s coming up in 2025, can have into the hundreds of thousands and even into the millions of economic impact, depending on how long the event is, how many people attend and all of that,” McConachie said. “It can definitely be a larger number than some people might think.”

Griggs said the city initially invested $200,000 in the course in 2018, and the maintenance is paid off every year with the funds from the Gans Creek Classic.

“What it does for the community person is it says, ‘This is a tremendous recreational facility that has a very low environmental impact.’” Griggs said. “Yet, it also brings in significant sports tourism dollars that helps Columbia’s economy and it doesn’t cost the city a lot of money to do so. As a taxpayer, that’s important.”