A $43.6 million indoor-outdoor sports complex would make Bloomington-Normal an even bigger sports tourism destination and have a multigenerational impact on public health, a consultant told elected officials Monday night.
The consultant, Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA), recommended a massive complex in a location still to be determined. It should have 16 outdoor fields—including 12 with lights and synthetic turf—and an adjoining dome big enough for five more multipurpose fields or two baseball or softball fields with year-round use, SFA reported. That would be enough to attract both regional youth-sports tournaments and serve local needs, SFA reported.
“You have to invest in the size and the quality of this facility in order to compete,” said Evan Eleff, chief operating officer and partner at SFA. “What’s happening right now in sports tourism … there’s major investment into this (in other communities). You can’t expect to put in a parking lot with some grass fields and just stripe them for a tournament and expect to compete long-term.”
Bloomington and Normal split the cost of the $47,000 SFA study, along with the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. All three met for a joint session Monday night at Heartland Community College. It was their first look at the results of SFA’s research.
Eleff said Bloomington-Normal already has enough hotels and restaurants to support an influx of out-of-town visitors. SFA estimates the complex would have a $9.5 million direct annual economic impact by Year 5, hosting between eight and 15 tournaments that draw regional visitors.
The complex could also meet local needs, such as a new home for the Illinois Fire Juniors soccer program—which will soon lose its Community Fields near Central Illinois Regional Airport. Its outdoor space would include a full-size cricket field—a rarity in this area, Eleff said.
“We don’t recommend cricket in many communities, but we do think it’s an opportunity here,” he said. “There’s a pretty significant cricket population here going up to Chicago (to play) right now.”
Elected officials asked several questions, including about the competitive sports tourism business, the shelf life of SFA’s research, and how to keep youth activities affordable.
The biggest question remains how to pay for it. That’s if the Normal Town Council or Bloomington City Council—or both—decide to move ahead with the project. Both just went through difficult budget-cutting episodes, up against flat or declining tax revenue streams.
Similar communities are increasingly turning to public-private partnerships to build sports complexes, Eleff said. Developers Dave Stark and Katie Kim last year proposed a public-private partnership for a sports complex on the community’s west side. Illinois Fire Juniors announced in May it was embarking on a $2.3 million fundraising campaign—possibly to become a private partner in a public project, or to acquire its own space to replace what’s lost at Community Fields.
Eleff said the project might qualify for New Market Tax Credits, depending on which site is chosen. That program incentives private investment in distressed areas.
“There have been requests from the private sector to look at public-private partnerships on this,” said Normal Mayor Chris Koos. “Once we as council start making decisions about where we want to go with this, we may see more of that. We have been approached in an inquisitive manner. Not saying, ‘We’re in.’ They’re interested and want to look at it and be part of it.”
Complex operations could break even by Year 5—or even sooner—by booking tournaments, selling food and beverage concessions, and renting fields, Eleff said. But that doesn’t include any public debt taken on by the project. Normal Town Council member Scott Preston also asked about potentially large capital replacement costs, such as replacing the dome or turf, in the first 20 years. (The complex would generate an additional $200,000+ a year in local tax revenue, SFA estimates.)
“It’s an investment. Not just a one-time investment,” Eleff said. “We don’t expect this facility to ever pay its own debt, either on the front end or the capital replacement, refinancing debt, whatever it may be.”
Elected officials were still processing the information moments after the meeting ended.
“That’s a lot of money, no matter what. However, we’ve heard higher numbers. We’ve heard lower numbers. The fact it was in that ballpark made me feel OK about it,” said Normal Town Council member Kathleen Lorenz. “The numbers tonight seemed very credible.”
Several leaders from Illinois Fire Juniors were also in the crowd.
“For us it was just a validation of what we already knew as soccer families and parents who live the economic impact and take a lot of that economic impact out of Bloomington-Normal and go play in tournaments in other cities,” said Tim Koch, president of the board of directors for Illinois Fire Juniors.
Would it fit the needs of his youth soccer organization?
“The fact that it’s all turf and all lit would be a big plus because that expands the amount of time and hours you can use it. That changes the dynamics a little bit. I believe that it’s something in line with the needs of our organization,” Koch said.
Lorenz said she was struck by SFA’s argument for the public health benefits of a complex, namely counteracting childhood obesity. The loss of Community Fields at CIRA is concerning, she said.
“What will those kids do?” Lorenz said. “That does give me pause for some of the things that we need to be mindful of, in terms of quality of (life) and what we provide to our families.”
The next steps, Koos said, would be the Bloomington and Normal councils deciding whether they want to proceed with exploring the project further, including possible funding mechanisms.
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