A regional robotics tournament, featuring up to 144 teams, could be headed to Searcy in 2021 after the Searcy Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission at a special meeting Friday pledged to provide $66,000 to FIRST Robotics if the city is chosen as host.

The tournament will be held in March or April 2021, and the FIRST Robotics regional director said she will now be pitching Searcy as the host site to the organization’s headquarters in New Hampshire with an answer expected maybe as soon as next week. (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)

Dana Hobbs, FIRST Robotics regional director for Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and part of Mississippi, addressed the A&P Commission by speakerphone Friday to make the request for financing.

“We help oversee four different programs that start in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and we have held in Arkansas for many, many years, it is referred to as the FIRST Robotics competition and it is ninth grade through 12th grade. We also have about 30 teams within the state of Arkansas. We want to continue having an event in Arkansas. We are looking for a home”

Mat Faulkner, president and chief idea officer for Think Idea Studio, was on hand to moderate the phone call from Hobbs and asked her to explain what the competition looks like.

Hobbs said the FIRST Robotics brings in a production company, an audio-visual company and an 18-wheeler truck filled with equipment.

“The playing field is a type of gymnasium; it’s the size of a basketball court,” Hobbs said. “We have 125 volunteers a day to run this event in a normal season, and that goes on for four days, and then we have the teams and the teams will range anywhere from about 15 to 75 kids on a team.”

Hobbs said when FIRST Robotics comes to a town, the tournament moves in on a Wednesday evening and the teams will set up tents similar to what is seen at a NASCAR event.

“They bring in their robots, their spare parts, their toolboxes and, in some cases, they lead in to marketing their teams so they will set up these big elaborate – say they are the ‘Dragon Slayers,’ that’s their team mascot, so they will fill up that castle so all the team members are involved in some aspect,” Hobbs said. “This is their celebration for spending three months building a robot.”

She said the students learn how to build the robots, which includes learning how to weld, drill and use other tools and also learning about dimensions and weight limits. Hobbs said the robots are about the size of a washing machine but they can’t weigh over 120 pounds.

Faulkner noted that in March, Barton Coliseum in Little Rock hosted a regional robotics competition and Hobbs said 61 teams participated.

She said because of COVID-19, FIRST Robotics will be following all regulations and the number of teams participating may vary. For planning purposes this year, FIRST Robotics is not concentrating on international teams in the tournament. If it gets the “all clear” in regards to COVID-19 restrictions, the international teams could be included in the future.

Faulkner said long term, FIRST Robotics would like to have a facility that would be conducive to holding these tournaments year-round so they would be attracting teams all the time. Hosting this tournament would be a first step for Searcy.

The $66,000 was said to be a reduced amount from what these type of tournaments usually cost. Sponsorships are usually sought also, so Faulkner said any sponsorships would reduce that $66,000.

The time frame on the next spring tournament would be two weeks. Hobbs said Sundays would be blacked out so people could attend worship.

As far as where the tournament location in Searcy would be, Faulkner said three possible locations are being named. The Kohler building that Fellowship Bible Church is renovating on East Beebe-Capps Expressawy is one of them. Another possible location would be an industrial building near Rhyno Fitness on Queensway Street. And the White County Fairgrounds on Davis Drive is the third possible location.

Hobbs would come to Searcy and scout the facilities and choose which one would be best suited for the tournament.

Harding Academy robotics coach Brian Jones was at the meeting and said this is a huge need. He said he has been working in the STEM education field for 12 years now and he sees a need all over the state not just for this program but for facilities and tools that people can be use.

Harding Academy’s robotic team is internationally known, Jones said, mentioning that the students have gone all the way to China and they are “super excited “ about an opportunity to make Searcy a landing spot where the area teams have the facilities and the equipment to increase the educational standards and benefits for schools all over.

“We are literally talking about the nation,” Jones said.

The long-term vision, Faulkner said, is “to have both a tournament facility that can host tournaments year-round as well as develop a complex for education, training, for robotics programs and also that would aid in relocation, helping families move to Searcy to be a part of the robotics programs.”

“It would improve our workforce by getting parents here who have kids that want to be involved in robotics and then, of course, tremendous amount of tourism,” he said. “I don’t know if we ever had a tournament that 144 teams participate, with that many people at one time, and we want to do that year-round. This request would be step one, hosting our first robotics tournament here in Searcy with the cooperation of A P.”

Commissioner Mike Chalenburg said he has attended some robotics events and “they were really fun; they are exciting. The robots basically play games for design and the kids love it and I have witnessed some of the design work. We got the kids doing tool shop equipment, things like that. It’s a fun thing and the kids are learning a lot of stuff from it.”

Concerning a question from Commissioner Brandon Williams about the amount that was requested, Faulkner said $10,000 of the $66,000 would be used for the lease or rent of the facility that would be the tournament location and the rest would be for putting the event on. Faulkner said sponsors would be sought after that would reduce the amount.

Commissioner Tommy Centola asked Hobbs about the timing of the tournament, asking if it would be two weekends and if so would the teams be in Searcy the entire two weeks or would they come in on Wednesday evening, leave on Sunday and come back the following Wednesday.

Hobbs said the participants have the option of selecting how many events they want to attend so it would be left up to the teams but if Searcy is awarded as the city, the teams will be offered the opportunity to stay that long. “The opportunity for 144 teams will be there,” she said.

Hobbs also said teams and volunteers would be staying at hotels. Commissioner Jim House added that Searcy restaurants also would benefit.

“Those kids get as excited for that [robotics competition] as they do for any basketball or football game and it is something that is not going to end when they graduate,” House said. “They are going to take it with them. You talk about something that is progressive and it is developing more and more all the time.

Williams said he alost has seen younger kids enjoying this type of activity and said it is exciting. Williams noted that Gov. Asa Hutchinson even had a big push for technology like this.

From a travel standpoint, Searcy would be conducive for all the different states to come to, Faulkner said.

Centola said the commission has done a lot for baseball and football but not yet anything for the kids who don’t play sports, so having the robotics tournament would be something for them.

Commission Chairman Chris Howell said this type of thing is something that is right in the “wheelhouse” of the A&P commission.

Jones said 31 high school students at Harding Academy participate in its robotics programs. From the junior high, 11 students take part in robotics and the fourth- through sixth-grade team has 24 students. The first- through third-grade team has 21 students participating.

He said he has played sports his whole life and loves robotics as well.

“We see this niche of kids who have the chance to get vocational training and competitiveness,” Jones said. “It’s for everyone. If you can do videography, photography, it brings the kid a chance in a professional environment to use those skills. To see these kids, knowing that they have done something that was a hobby, they are doing it in front of professionals.

“There’s nothing like this in the nation. There is not a facility or place that is trying to build themselves around STEM educational events and it would be a revenue boost for Searcy; it would be a morale boost.”

Jones said his robotics team usually goes to two regional qualifiers and a world championship in Houston.

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