When faced with the prospect of a $40 million sports complex supporters think would be a game-changer for the region’s tourism industry, area officials see what could be a promising project.
But they still have questions about the details. Namely, how the economic impact will be tracked, the impact similar facilities in the region could have on its popularity and the potential return localities could see on investments.
The project is one of 10 proposals from six local groups, each vying for a portion of a projected $2.2 million in SB 942 tax revenue that the City of Williamsburg has set aside this year to support local tourism. The Williamsburg Hotel Motel Association is requesting $9.25 million spread over five years — $1.85 million each year — to pay for a portion of the costs to construct a new, 168,000-square-foot indoor sports and events complex next to Quarterpath Recreation Center.
As Hotel Motel Association Executive Director Ron Kirkland explained at last month’s Tourism Development Grant Review Committee meeting, the facility could host a number of regional indoor sports tournaments as well as trade shows and graduations.
The city’s TDF Grant Review Committee will finalize its funding recommendations this month, and will present its recommendations to City Council in September. SB 942 funds will be dispersed to successful applicants in October.
The project sounds like it could be a boon to the region, James City County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Icenhour said, though he didn’t seem totally sold on the idea in a phone interview. He felt other board members would be interested in learning more about the proposal.
“We’re willing to look at it,” Icenhour said.
A few James City County officials sat down with Kirkland to discuss the project in June. Among the county officials were county administrator Scott Stevens and Supervisor Ruth Larson, said Icenhour, who also attended the meeting.
While the proposal has its merits, Icenhour expressed concern about how to track economic impact. The county has explored doing similar projects on its own and found that ultimately such sports complexes would run at a deficit based on its studies.
“You couldn’t do it and expect it to pay for itself,” Icenhour said.
The Hotel Motel Association pitch carries with it an expectation the complex would be a revenue multiplier for the rest of the region’s tourism industry — families that come to participate in a tournament would also dine at local restaurants, stay in local hotels and spend downtime at local attractions.
But as Icenhour sees things, it would be difficult to quantify those benefits not specifically related to the operation of the complex itself.
“That’s something that would have to be worked out,” he said.
The complex as proposed is anticipated to have an average economic impact of about $11.6 million annually in the first five years of operation thanks to spending by complex patrons on lodgings, dining, retail and other expenses, according to a presentation by Sports Facilities Advisory, a firm that conducted an analysis of the project.
When asked how it would be possible to actually track that impact, Kirkland admitted it would be unlikely to get a total accounting of the complex’s economic impact on the region. However, there are ways the region could measure it to some degree.
It would require regional buy-in and some coordination, but one thing that could be done is offer participants in a youth sports event held at the complex free tickets to a local attraction such as Busch Gardens. Parents would likely plan around a trip to the park during the stay and buy extra tickets so the whole family can go.
“Chances are I’m going to plan on that, so that we have at least one extra day so we can all go to Busch Gardens because I just saved $79.99,” Kirkland said.
Other potential means of tracking economic impact are hotel discounts for sports tourists who choose to stay an extra day or two in town, or surveys in which tourists report how they spent their time off the court.
Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling echoed Icenhour’s concerns, saying that while the concept sounds like it could be successful on paper, due diligence needs to be taken to address legitimate questions with the proposal before it can move forward, including the impact that existing sports complexes in the region could have on this facility’s usage.
He mentioned similar regional sports complexes like the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton and other facilities in Virginia Beach and Richmond.
“The one thing that would be interesting to try to get a handle on is, are the other amenities in Williamsburg that make us a good tourist destination enough to single out Williamsburg as a place that these sports groups would want to come?” he asked.
While there are other similar facilities in eastern Virginia, the overall market is on an upward trajectory and there’s plenty of room for Williamsburg to get in on the action. The industry has doubled in revenue over the last 10 years and is expected to double again in the following decade, Kirkland said.
“I want to get a big piece of it and I think if you build this type of facility, you can,” he said.
Williamsburg City Manager Andrew Trivette said that while the possibility of an indoor sports complex in the Historic Triangle has been a topic of conversation between city and county staff members since the Hotel Motel Association commissioned a feasibility study on the concept in 2014, all three localities need to have a better grasp on the particular details of the project before beginning to discuss how to collaborate regionally to fund it.
Though the project appears to have its perks, it will also likely require further conversations and study, meaning it won’t happen anytime too soon, York Supervisor Jeff Wassmer said.
“I think the project has merit,” he said. “I think this is way down the road.”
Wassmer is also chairman of the Tourism Council board. The Tourism Council is the arm of the alliance that markets the region to overnight tourists. He declined to speculate on whether his colleagues would support construction of a sports complex. He noted the board had agreed to establish a capital projects and infrastructure fund, and a sports complex would be just the sort of project that fund is intended to help.
It will be critical for James City County, York County and Williamsburg to support the project. The project proposal has the three localities and the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance’s Tourism Council provide funding to make the complex happen.
“The municipalities would have to be on board,” Wassmer said.
County and Tourism Council representatives said they’ve yet to be approached with a formal funding request for the project.
Thomas Shepperd, chairman of the York County Board of Supervisors, also said he needs to have a better understanding of the project’s impact — including what the potential return on the county’s investment in the project would be — before supporting it.
“When it comes down to investing tax dollars in something, we need to start understanding what we’re getting back,” he said.
In some ways, the proposed facility is just a starting point. The final form of it could change based on what financiers want, and there are still conversations to have and research to do regarding the proposal.
“There has to be more agreement between all the people who will provide financial resources,” Kirkland said. “Those players would have to come to an agreement on what is the exact facility they want.”
Regardless of how the finer details turn out, Kirkland said a large indoor sports complex would be a great investment for the region, something that would attract tourists and would find use among locals.
“As we look at it, this is the right project. Somebody is going to have to tell me what would be better that would provide the significant financial impact that city council had in mind when it passed the TDF resolution. This is what they were talking about. Something big,” Kirkland said.
Jack Jacobs, email@example.com, 757-298-6007, @jajacobs_. Rodrigo Arriaza, firstname.lastname@example.org, 757-790-9313, @rodrigoarriaza0
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