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As sports-tourism fever spreads, will investments pay off?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2014 at 08:38 AM

NEWBERRY — Whether taxpayers really benefit from paying big bucks for ballparks has stumped communities and economists for decades, and the debate continues with the Tampa Bay Rays stadium talks.

However, the same cost-benefit analysis is playing out in some surprisingly small venues: youth baseball diamonds and basketball arenas.

Developers and government leaders in the Tampa area are pitching at least four such proposals that together could cost up to $80 million.

Two are indoor volleyball/basketball arenas, one is a soccer complex and one a mammoth 19-field baseball field complex in Pasco County.

Meanwhile, community leaders nationwide are building $15 million to $25 million youth parks in hopes of luring traveling baseball, soccer and volleyball teams, their parents and ultimately jobs.

But, to paraphrase a line from “Field of Dreams,” what happens if you build it and no one comes?

A year after opening, Nations Park has hosted only two major tournaments and is preparing for a third. The mayor charges that the developer misled the city, and City Commission candidates use it as a campaign talking point.

When asked how many communities in Florida are considering building sports facilities to lure tournaments, Clearwater-based sports marketing consultant Dev Pathik said, “I can’t think of anyone that’s not.”

Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad speaks of the excitement that swelled in his city of 5,000 five years ago. The city had called a town hall meeting to hear from Lou Presutti, the man who owns the Cooperstown Dreams Park in upstate New York, and the room was packed.

“I asked, ‘Who all’s in favor of this project?’” Conrad recalls. “Every hand in the room went up.”

It seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was about baseball and America, Conrad said, and best of all, the park’s cost would be funded by hotel taxes on Alachua County visitors, rather than local taxpayers.

Presutti had unusual ideas for his ballparks based on his New York complex — things the locals had never seen.

For example, he ringed all 16 diamonds with an 8-foot-tall, hunter green wall. It’s so high that it’s difficult to see what’s happening inside, and some locals complained the wall traps heat inside.

Next, Presutti eschewed the usual bleachers behind home plate and instead put in dugout-like structures for spectators on both sides of the outfield.

“The man who owns Cooperstown, he wants the focus to be on the kids,” said John Pricher, interim director of the tourism agency Visit Gainesville.

But after the initial excitement died down, the park began sitting idle for long stretches. The blades of emerald green artificial turf in the infield look untouched.

Most agree that two tournaments in a year is too few.

“But then, he didn’t seem to have 4,000 teams or 400 teams or 40 teams,” the mayor said. “We’ve never had a tournament that lasted over two days.”

Presutti told the Tribune that the park just needs more time to catch on. It took five or six years to make Cooperstown Dreams Park the success it is, he said, and he’s been surprised by the lack of patience by some in Newberry.

“There’s no issue there,” Presutti said. “We need a three- to four-year ramp-up-period for it to find its way and identity. It was just a matter of time to make it successful.”

Nations Park is “the best 16-field facility in the world, probably,” he added.

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It’s hard to know if what’s happening in Newberry portends trouble for other communities or is an isolated case.

Some proponents of sports tourism say Newberry is too isolated to be successful; others suggest it hasn’t done a good job marketing the facility.

Don Schumacher, head of the National Association of Sports Commissions trade group, said to be successful a community needs perfect facilities and a proliferation of existing quality hotels and restaurants and other attractions nearby for traveling families to visit.

Even then, there’s no guarantee of success.

One surprising pitfall: Communities sometimes lose money on sports tournaments and only benefit when tourists spend money at local businesses.

Fees can run $25,000 to $50,000, said Pathik, the sports marketing consultant, who is also the head of Sports Facilities Advisory in Clearwater.

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Some sports complexes have been successful when the community has the attractions and hotels to support them, such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., Schumacher said.

The Dallas suburb of Frisco has gone all-in with sports tourism, involved in public-private partnership on a soccer stadium for the pro team FC Dallas, which also hosts youth tournaments, and another partnership on an indoor sports building called Fieldhouse USA.

It recently lured the Dallas Cowboys to move their corporate headquarters there.

But Schumacher’s been cautioning that too many feasibility studies are overly optimistic.

“You can’t find two economics professors in the United States that can agree on economic impact,” he said.

Even with its ballparks unproven, Newberry is considering a second sports-tourism facility: an indoor basketball/volleyball “fieldhouse” built by a new Sarasota company called GoodSports Enterprises.

The company is seeking a $5 million local government investment, matched by a larger private contribution, the mayor said.

GoodSports Enterprises has a local connection to Newberry that may give it a leg up: The city’s former parks and recreation director, Richard Blalock, left Newberry to take a job with GoodSports.

Attempts to reach Blalock and GoodSports were unsuccessful.

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Locally, the four sports-tourism venues for which developers or government leaders are pushing are:

Pasco County sports complex. Tampa firm Blue Marble Strategic won a contract from Pasco County and plans a 19-field baseball complex in Wesley Chapel’s Wiregrass area. Of the $34 million cost, Pasco County would put up $11 million for infrastructure costs and Blue Marble must raise the other $23 million.

Hillsborough County soccer complex. Known for pushing sports projects, County Commissioner Ken Hagan has his eye on a soccer complex with 16 to 20 fields. Hagan would tap into $15 million that the county set aside several years ago for another sports facility once proposed by former Commissioner Jim Norman.

West Shore district fieldhouse. Tampa investment fund manager Bob Gries and the business group the Westshore Alliance are proposing an indoor volleyball/basketball facility at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. He hopes to raise much of the $20 million to $25 million cost, but said he will ask for some government assistance.

GoodSports Enterprises village. Aside from the Newberry proposal, GoodSports Enterprises wants a hotel/indoor sports fieldhouse to be the anchor tenant in a major redevelopment of the Florida State Fairgrounds. It wasn’t clear in recent weeks whether the company will seek government support.

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Pasco’s ballpark complex looks to be the grandest of all, and James Talton of Blue Marble Strategic said it will be unlike anything else in the United States. It will include dormitories and a cafeteria for kids and a 2,500-seat stadium.

Talton has no experience running a youth baseball complex, but says of Virgin Atlantic’s founder: “Richard Branson, to this day, has not fixed one airplane engine, but somehow he manages to run a major airline.”

Talton spent 17 years with Marriott Corp. and in 2003 joined local hotelier Mainsail Lodging and Development. It was with Mainsail that he developed an exclusive resort for the wealthy on a small island in the Caribbean Sea: Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina.

That resort filed for bankruptcy protection in November after a dispute with its bank over debts. Talton said he left before the bankruptcy filing and declined to comment on it, other than to say “This resort, which had a great business plan, got stuck in the middle of a global financial crisis.”

Mainsail terminated Talton’s employment in January 2013, Vice President Norwood Smith said, but he declined further comment. Talton said he wasn’t at liberty to talk about his departure from the company.

Some travel ball insiders wonder whether Talton will be able to fill 19 fields consistently.

Mark Jackson runs Polk County’s sports marketing agency, which he bills as the largest in Florida.

He believes tournaments can fill hotel rooms and restaurants, and his county has landed major sports tournaments at its multimillion-dollar complex in Auburndale, including the national 200-team collegiate baseball tournament RussMatt Central Florida Invitational.

But he wonders about the debt service and return on investment for some of the parks being contemplated.

On the Pasco proposal, he said, “I think with that many (19) fields, even with a seasoned sports operation, one would have to question whether that could be sustained over any length of time.”

Pasco County is eying additional sports venues and is soliciting help from advisers to help it navigate the industry.

Pathik, the Clearwater consultant, expects to bid on a contract to advise Pasco. So many communities want his advice and help operating sports parks that Pathik expects to hire about 200 employees to help him run facilities in the next few months, he said.

Pasco tourism manager Ed Caum said: “Keep an eye on Pasco. We’re up and coming.”

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Newberry leaders think they can turn around Nations Park.

They’re negotiating with Alachua County’s sports marketing agency, the Gainesville Sports Commission, to step in and run the baseball park. Presutti will take on a lesser role.

Visit Gainesville’s Pricher and Newberry are hoping to lure 12 tournaments per year to start, even though he admits it’s a low threshold. Some other communities are shooting for 30 or more tournaments per year.

“That’s not some pie-in-the-sky kind of thing,” he said. “Some of it, it’s a lot like a start-up company. You have to get people to come through and come back.”

But even as Newberry looks to the future, developers in nearby Clay County, Fla., and Kings­land, Ga., are considering big baseball complexes to compete with Nations Park.

Clay County to the northeast is negotiating with California company Big League Dreams, which builds $20 million ballpark projects.

Its niche is in miniaturized versions of Major League Baseball parks, and today its versions of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field dot cities in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

But her counterpart in Redding, Calif., said much of the tourism momentum there stalled in the recession and hasn’t returned.

Clay County cites another park in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert as a success, because it drew 309,000 attendees in 2010. However, the park’s spiraling cost — it rose from $22 million to $53 million — has been the topic of investigative news reports.

Big League Dreams officials didn’t return calls.

Like Newberry, Clay County’s proposal has drawn criticism from bloggers and government watchdogs, who question the wisdom of spending $18 million to $22 million on five or six baseball diamonds.

A feasibility study by a Jacksonville consulting firm says it could create new retail plazas, movie theaters and multifamily housing around the 35-acre ballpark site.

However, Clay County Auditor Mike Price, who did his own review, estimates the direct benefit to taxpayers will be just $350,000 a year in revenue-sharing payments and extra tax revenues.

“The payback period for this project would be between 75 and 125 years under the most optimistic projections,” Price wrote in his analysis.

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Newberry City Commission candidates are treating Nations Park as a political issue and taking sides.

Candidate Jason McGehee said some people are spooked by the slow start, but many more still believe in the power of sports tourism.

Newberry can still be the Cooperstown of the South if the city can just find someone to market it properly, he said.

“We bought a really shiny sports car, and we don’t have anyone to drive it,” he said.

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