The recent ceremony to herald the naming rights on a state-of-the-art baseball and softball complex in West Michigan was one more chapter in a success story that started long before 2020 – but it was part of what allowed the destination to come through a hard year and emerge victorious.
In early May, the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC) and Meijer announced a new 10-year partnership further uniting the two West Michigan organizations, with Meijer as the new naming rights partner of the WMSC’s flagship baseball/softball complex in Rockford, now officially called the Meijer Sports Complex.
The facility is is a championship-caliber baseball/softball complex near Rockford featuring eight baseball and softball fields, including the 385-foot fenced Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation Championship Field with covered grandstands to seat 1,000 spectators; Nate Hurwitz Miracle League Field for children with disabilities; warm-up areas, restrooms, concessions and maintenance building; and parking for more than 400 vehicles.
The complex, which heads into its seventh season, became a linchpin for hosting as event owners searched desperately for places to host tournaments during the pandemic.
“In 2020, in Michigan, we had the not-so-great reputation of being shut down more than other states, which made it really challenging when you try to reach out to attract business,” notes Mike Guswiler, president of the WMSC. “When we were able to see restrictions start being lifted in June of 2020, it was a green light for us.”
The WMSC’s communications with event owners brought its own revelation.
“People generally fell into three buckets,” said Guswiler. “You had the people who were very concerned about COVID, you had the people in the middle of the road who were feeling cooped up and who were willing to travel as long as it was safe – and you had those who didn’t care or didn’t believe it was a problem. For those in the first bucket and those in the second too, we wanted to ease their minds. We had protocols we’d enacted for staff and athletes, and it really helped with those people’s comfort level.”
Protocols included temperature checks for staff who also wore masks and gloves, asking people to socially distance, sanitizing bleachers after use and expanding the dugouts by adding extra seats. The staff also limited the number of people using in restrooms at any given time, and added signage listing the rules.
“I would say it really made people more comfortable,” said Guswiler.
Even in 2020 with the pandemic and resulting event restrictions plus the recession, baseball/softball tournaments at the sports complex generated $2.4 million in direct visitor spending from hosting 15 tournaments, 462 teams, more than 6,000 athletes, 11,000 spectators and 2,433 hotel room nights.
“Our numbers were equal to the ones in 2019, although we had more local teams than those traveling from in out of state,” said Guswiler. “In our minds, 2020 was a success story.”
Since opening its doors, the Meijer Sports Complex has attracted more than 96 events and 170,105 visitors with an economic impact for Kent County in excess of $28 million, including cumulative hotel room night stays of more than 30,000.
The 2021 baseball/softball season already is off to a strong start at the Meijer Sports Complex, with almost every playable weekend booked with tournaments, including 14 tournaments by Game Day USA and four by USA Softball, highlighted by the USA Softball Men's Open East Fast Pitch National Championship August 27-29 and USA Softball Men's Slow Pitch Class D National ChampionshipSeptember 3-5.
“We’re predominantly hosting youth tournaments, but we have a good relationship with USA Softball. There have been a lot of men’s events already, but we’d also love to get women’s events as well,” Notes Guswiler.
From a development standpoint, the sports complex has attracted other sports that were hosted on adjacent properties over the years to make the region a true youth and amateur sports destination, including the West Michigan Archery Center, Rock City BMX, two multi-use soccer fields, a sledding hill, and the multi-use Merrell Trail – all part of Plainfield Township Premier Park.
The Meijer Sports Complex sits on land that includes an additional 10 acres that could be developed.
And Guswiler thinks that sounds like a pretty good idea.
“The timing is right to expand. Perhaps additional fields will help us to incrementally growth our host opportunities, as well as the number of visitors coming in.”