Sports Facilities

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Cities Jumping on the Sports Tourism Bandwagon: Too Much, Too Soon?

26 Aug, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

There’s no doubt that more kids are playing sports than ever. There’s also no doubt that the sports tourism market is booming.

The problem, according to some, is that there are areas that are seeing sports complexes as a panacea, and are pushing through measures to build them – without getting community buy-in. And that is leading to a lot of disgruntled residents – and a great deal of community pushback.

Boston’s recent withdrawal from being the U.S. nominee city to host the 2024 Olympics is a prime example. Although community leaders were in favor of the measure, citizens were wary of the disruption it would bring, including the possibility of land seized by eminent domain in order to build facilities, and cost overruns that would result in a taxpayer bailout.

But even within smaller cities that have no intention of hosting the Games, building facilities can remain a contentious subject. In Mobile, Alabama, for example, the possibility of a new soccer complex is causing tension.

“The wrangling over whether to build a $20-million-plus soccer facility at the nexus of our two interstates has reached a level of intensity that has created serious friction between the mayor and City Council while also creating a political chasm between the president of the County Commission and Hizzoner,” noted an article in Lagniappe.

It wasn’t the fact that kids love soccer, by the way, that was causing the debate; the crux of the matter was whether the community wanted or needed a $20 million soccer facility — one that would eventually be accompanied by another $20 million worth of taxpayer-owned natatorium and water park.

And Mobile is not, by any stretch, the only city to be trying to juggle this argument, and it’s not a new issue. Back in 2011, opinion in the Burnsville/Savage/South Metro area of Minnesota was sharply divided on whether a taxpayer-funded soccer dome was needed. In 2012, the Arizona Daily Star covered the issue of whether a new arena should be built in Pima County to try to attract sports events.

And there are more examples, with cities waving surveys and studies, saying they show the ways facilities will pay for themselves in a few years.

But, noted the article that dealt with Mobile’s dilemma, that was part of the problem:

“The next time I see a government-paid-for economic study saying the agency that paid for the study is about to make a horrible economic decision, it will be the first time,” wrote reporter Rob Holbert. “In every failed build-it-and-they-will-come program this city or county has that is currently losing buckets of money, there is an economic study that was once held up to the heavens as proof of genius and riches to come.”

All things considered, said Holbert, it was better to resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon. But the old 'If you build it, they will come' philosophy is hard to live down.

Sports tourism works, say officials, when residents are behind it, when infrastructure supports it and when the financing is committed and in place. When The Arizona Republic polled officials about sports tourism, it found a uniformly positive voice – with one common denominator: nothing had been pushed through without due consideration.

In Avondale, which is adjacent to Phoenix, Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers, for example, noted that her city had decided against pursuing Cactus League baseball because of the major capital and ongoing investment required. “Instead,” she noted, “we focused on a strategy surrounding the attraction of youth and amateur sports, based on our young, growing demographics. The city invested in sports amenities — Friendship Park, Festival Fields and the Randall McDaniel Sports Complex — that serve residents year round, while attracting regional and national tournaments. Phoenix International Raceway, a privately-owned facility, hosts two NASCAR races annually, each with an economic impact equivalent to a Super Bowl."

Another Ariona politico, Glendale Councilman Gary Sherwood, noted that a sports facility isn’t enough to spur sports tourism. Sports tourism, he noted, will come, but it takes more than one thing to bring it in.

"(Sports tourism will benefit a city, as long as officials) can spur development around it and develop it as an entertainment hub or other commercial endeavor. …  These sports venues and events bring economic-development benefits that normally wouldn't be afforded to bedroom communities because there is vitality in the area. You have to have the build-out around the venues, though, to realize the sports payback."

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