A proposed $44 million youth sports complex in Clark County could lead to millions in new investment and provide a needed boost to area businesses and hotels, local leaders said.
A study released by the Chamber of Greater Springfield in August proposed developing about 83 acres of property for the complex, which would seek to attract tournaments year-round for sports such as basketball, baseball and volleyball. It would also be part of a still growing amateur and youth sports industry that analysts estimate as a roughly $15 billion business nationwide.
Local leaders have stressed the proposal is just the first step in a process that could take years and acknowledged several questions need answered before it could move forward.
But they also said whether it’s a sports complex or another project entirely, new ideas are needed to attract new retail and other business to Springfield and Clark County.
“This study starts the discussion about potential projects — and there may be multiple projects — that we need to do to change the trajectory of Clark County,” said Chris Schutte, vice-president of destination marketing and communications for the chamber.
The chamber had also considered trying to attract more conventions and business meetings to downtown Springfield, Schutte said. But local leaders ultimately settled on the sports complex, in part because many other communities similar to Springfield already have the resources in place to attract conventions and it would be more challenging for Springfield to stand out in that area.
The Greater Springfield Convention and Visitor’s Bureau formed a sports tourism committee last year to look at how to draw more sports tournaments to Clark County. The Clark County Convention Facilities Authority approved a roughly $50,000 grant to cover the study, which was conducted by Florida-based Sports Facilities Advisory.
Staff at SFA couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
The sports complex, if it moves forward, could draw tournaments from across Ohio and neighboring states because of Springfield’s geographic location, the study says, and it would be the only venue of its size in the region.
“A new sports tourism development located in Clark County would have access to a regional population of over 37 million — a significant population size and advantage over more isolated destinations,” the study says. “While the population size alone is not indicative of project success, a multitude of other factors … combine to create a positive market scenario for which a sports tourism facility could succeed.”
Some questions that still need answered include how the youth sports complex would be paid for and where it would be located.
Chamber officials have pointed to the Upper Valley Mall as an ideal location in the long term, although other sites are possible. However the mall’s owner recently said he plans to continue to try to attract retailers and restaurants to the retail site and has no intention of selling the property.
Regardless, developing sports facilities to attract youth travel is a growing industry, said Mary Parr, an associate professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Kent State University. She has firsthand knowledge of the industry’s growth as the parent of a high school student who regularly travels for basketball.
Nationally as many as 2,000 communities now have projects underway to either develop or upgrade youth sports facilities, according to information from Wintergreen Research, which tracks the industry. The youth sports landscape has been shifting for years and has become increasingly competitive.
Students athletes now often specialize in specific sports, Parr said, with families traveling on weekends to various tournaments. While there’s an ongoing debate about whether those changes are good for children, communities across the U.S. are increasingly building facilities to attract youth tournaments that can mean extra spending on hotels, restaurants and other retail dollars. The SFA report showed visitor spending associated with sports events increased 5 percent since 2014.
“There is some critique out there about this whole industry but it’s worth a lot of money and so my guess is it’s not going to slow down any time soon,” Parr said.
The youth sports landscape has changed over several decades, she said. Traveling leagues are increasingly seen as a way to get young athletes more exposure that could lead to a college scholarship. Parr’s daughter has been contacted several times by organizations that pledged to help her get a college scholarship — for a fee.
In general youth sports can be an effective tool to draw tourism spending to a community, Parr said. The challenge for a community is to make sure it conducts thorough research before moving forward.
“In any proposal going forward you want to make sure that company shows you very thorough market research, including comparable cities,” Parr said.
In Springfield, Schutte said the SFA study showed Springfield is in a good position to attract out-of-town teams and their families. As proposed, the site would include a 95,000-square-foot indoor facility with six basketball courts and 12 volleyball courts, along with space for an entertainment center and concessions.
Another 38 acres outside would include eight synthetic turf baseball fields, eight multipurpose fields, and support and maintenance buildings. It would also include about 43 acres with close to 1,700 parking spaces.
The facility would be larger than needed to serve the immediate area and would require an annual operating subsidy for at least the first five years, the SFA report says. It would rely on marketing the facilities to draw various tournaments to Springfield year-round.
To succeed, the study says the proposed complex would have to make Springfield a regional hub that could become a destination for youth and amateur tournaments.
But the study says the payoff would come from direct spending at hotels, restaurants and other businesses as the facility draws weekend tournaments. The facility would generate about $15 million in spending the first year and $20 million annually by the fifth year of operation, according to the report.
While it would cost $46 million to build and operate for the first five years, the SFA report says it would generate about twice that much in spending by out-of-town visitors.
“In other words, for every $1 invested into the new facility for the cost of development and operational subsidy over the first five years, approximately $2.02 is generated in direct spending in the local area,” the study says.
The study doesn’t recommend how to pay for the project, but chamber leaders said it could include a mix of public funding and private investment. Assuming public money is used, one of the key questions will be how much access area residents would have to the facility, Parr said.
One of the benefits of the project, Schutte said, is area students will be able to access the facilities during the week when tournaments aren’t in progress. The next step, he said, is to develop a group of stakeholders who would determine how to gather public input and develop a plan for how to pay for the project.
“That’s one of the great things about this, is our local kids will be playing on these fields when there’s no tournament going on,” Schutte said.
It could also lead to improvements at facilities like National Trail Parks and Recreation District’s Eagle City Soccer complex, which already regularly hosts some tournaments, Schutte said.
It’s too early to say what role, if any, organizations like National Trail would have in making suggestions to develop or promote the sports complex, said Leann Castillo, recreation district director. But Castillo said she’s seen similar projects work elsewhere and it’s possible it could lead to improvements at existing facilities like Eagle City.
“Our community needs to be moving forward and we need to look at what we could do,” Castillo said. “Even if some things don’t happen, we can’t sit back and say, ‘We wish we would have done that.’”
The facilities available now are well-maintained, said Scott Cultice, president of the Springfield Thunder, a local competitive soccer club. The club fields about 30 teams with students from 6 to 18 years old. But if a proposed sports complex moves forward it would allow Clark County to host larger tournaments that aren’t possible now, he said.
The club hosted a large tournament that drew 100 teams from across Ohio this year and has a good relationship with National Trail. But he said long-term there’s little room for growth if the tournament grows. Evans estimated his club travels to about five tournaments a year, some as far away as Toledo and Louisville, Ky.
“I see it being a definite economy booster bringing in some of the larger traveling tournaments where we can’t hold them locally right now,” Cultice said.