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Build It and They Will Come? Not So Fast, Says Pensacola County

23 Mar, 2016

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Officials Question Economic Assumptions of New Indoor Sports Complex

Youth sports is one of those things no one wants to be against. Kids engaging in sports is one of the most wholesome pictures of Americana anyone can conjure. Jumping on the youth sports facility bandwagon as a Band-Aid for a poor local economy, however, is easy – but Pensacola, Florida, is being cautious instead.

Economic development group Pensacola Sports recently shared a new feasibility study on the economic potential of a proposed indoor sports complex that would be comprised of a 120,000 square-foot facility consisting of eight hardwood basketball courts, expandable bleacher seating, meeting rooms, locker rooms and enough outdoor space for possible soccer, lacrosse and baseball fields. The study presented several potential locations for the proposed facility. A 19-acre lot owned by Quint Studer on Main Street on the site of a former wastewater treatment plant was presented as the first choice.

Pensacola Sports asked the city’s commissioners for permission to form a steering committee Thursday at a Board of County Commissioners Committee in early February. During the hour-long question and answer session, some commissioners, including District-2 county commissioner Doug Underhill, reminded the meeting attendees that economic development programs don’t always follow a “Field of Dreams” script.

“One of the things we make a mistake so often in this county is the ‘If we build it, they will come’ mentality,” said Underhill. "Those words scare me more than anything. … That has left us high and dry many times.”

The feasibility study presented to the Board of County Commissioners was conducted by Crossroads Consulting Services and Convergence Design. The study predicted that the facility would host sports tournaments 35 to 41 weekends a year, generate about 50,000 hotel-room bookings in Escambia County and result in $25 million in annual economic impact on the region, according to the Pensacola News-Journal.

The feasibility study was approved by vote by the county commissioners in 2015.  The $102,300 contract to Tampa-based Crossroads Consulting Services LLC was intended to examine the Pensacola Bay Center's potential. District 1 of Escambia County features the existing Southwest Escambia Sports Complex, which offers 17 fields for softball, baseball and soccer. The county has other sports facilities, including an equestrian center on Mobile Highway.

At the time of the feasibility study was commissioned, Commissioner Underhill said it was going to be a hard sell.

"I'm going to be a hard sell if someone is going to come in with a major capital project (for sports)," he said.

During the recent meeting that presented the findings of the feasibility study, Underhill criticized presenters for providing limited data. He demanded details about which specific events would be featured in the proposed facility for up to 41 weekends a year. Palmer of Pensacola Sports answered that it would be virtually impossible to state for certain at this point, a response that did not please Underhill.

“Nobody’s going to commit to come on a 'what if'," said Underhill.

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