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Financial game plan key to youth sports complex

Tuesday, August 17, 2010  
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By Jeff Kolkey
Posted Aug 17, 2010 @ 12:53 AM
Last update Aug 20, 2010 @ 08:08 AM

A $22.8 million Rockford Sports Complex could recapture the region’s dominance in the amateur youth sports market and blaze a new trail in the industry.

Still undecided is how to build a facility that can host summer overnight basketball camps, accommodate indoor soccer and other turf sports during the winter, and restore the Rockford region as a youth sports powerhouse — without risking taxpayer dollars.

Rockford Park District Executive Director Tim Dimke said he is moving deliberately on the project with leaders from Rockford and Loves Park because they know residents have little tolerance for a project that would spend taxes amid a recession.

"We have to be very prudent with the money they have given us,” Dimke said. "We have to put the right model together that says this facility has an excellent chance of making it, using very few tax dollars. ...

We have to have solid, almost risk-free responses and answers before we come out and say it’s a go.”

But the potential is impossible to ignore: What is envisioned as a 122,000-square-foot "Indoor Multi-Sport Center” could draw 6,400 players a summer to a unique overnight basketball camp, generate as much as $45.7 million a year in tourism spending and give local residents access to a world-class sports facility the rest of the year.

It would attract not only players and their coaches but families of the players, and is estimated to generate 74,840 room nights for area hotels.

Market competition
Rockford remains known nationally as a youth sports destination in the Midwest for its accessibility, affordability and impressive sports facilities, including its soccer and softball fields at Sportscore One and Sportscore Two, said Talty O’Connor, publisher and owner of SportsEvents Magazine.

But the Rockford region has lost some of its market share to other areas of the country as they try to cash in on what the Alabama-based magazine estimates is a $6.5 billion a year youth sports tourism industry.

O’Connor said that even during the recession, parents made amateur youth sports a priority and found ways to reduce costs and continue to participate in competitive travel leagues and tournaments. Competition is fierce.

The Olympic Development Program used to bring nearly 2,000 soccer players and coaches to Rockford for tournaments and generated an estimated $500,000 for hotels, restaurants and stores. This year, the tournament moved to Overland Park, Kan., which has outdone Rockford by building a $36 million facility with a dozen lighted, artificial turf fields.

Generating an estimated $400,000 for the economy, the Wildcat National Summer Classic basketball tournament drew 326 teams to Rockford last year. But there were scheduling conflicts and it outgrew the area this year, leaving for the Chicago suburbs.

Other venues in the Midwest are emulating or improving on what Rockford has meant to the amateur youth sports industry for two decades.

"For lots of communities, the light bulb comes on that says ‘this is an economic powerhouse and we can compete,’” O’Connor said.

Rockford College favored
Plenty of communities are trying to compete with Rockford for shares of the soccer, baseball and softball market. But this latest effort was born of the dreams of the late Tim Nieder, who brought his vision of a "Dream Team” summer basketball camp to Rockford.

His dream lives on.

Opening and closing ceremonies, a dormitory-style camp where players stay on-site with their coach, and a week of games culminating with a championship is something that officials say is not being done for youth basketball.

That’s why officials are leaning toward Rockford College over Sportscore Two as the site for the complex. Using the existing dormitories on the college campus is cheaper and would give the complex a unique basketball experience to sell.

Tenants are a key revenue generator for the complex. They are needed to defray the cost of operations and allow the community to use the facility the rest of the year for indoor soccer and other turf sports.

So far officials haven’t been able to identify a potential tenant for the entire eight weeks the dormitory would be available each summer. However, already established basketball camp organizers are interested in the potential of leasing it for camps running from two to three weeks.

Among the ideas floated to pay for the complex in addition to summer tenants have been an additional hotel tax, amusement tax or a special sales tax area concentrated in the area immediately surrounding the sports complex. All would be designed to capture tourism money the complex is attracting.

Nothing has been decided.

"A project like this has to be as close to 100 percent funded in capital and operations through nontax sources,” Dimke said. "That is the crux of what is taking us so long.”

Invest or fall
Without a convention center to market, the Rockford Area Visitors & Convention Bureau considers itself a trailblazer in the amateur youth sports industry. The bureau became one of the first in the nation to begin selling the region as an amateur sports destination, and it became well known throughout the Midwest, tourism bureau CEO John Groh said.

Sportscore One was built in 1983 on 105 acres as a way to get competitive softball tournaments out of local parks, where they were inconveniencing residents and usurping what were meant to be neighborhood parks.

When the region invested in Sportscore Two in 2001 with 19 regulation soccer fields and the Indoor Sports Center, the region was able to secure its dominance for nearly another decade.

Although Rockford is still attractive for those sports, others are attempting to cash in on the lucrative tourism market and building lighted artificial turf complexes.

"We risk losing market share and our reputation if we fail to recognize that other communities look to us as an economic model that they want to emulate,” Groh said. "If we choose to ignore (them)..., we are choosing to turn a blind eye and choosing to lose our economic dominance and impact in amateur sports tourism.”

This story appeared at on August 17, 2010.

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