FREDERICA—Kent County’s field of dreams is a verdant slice on the northeast corner of Bay Highway and Milford Neck Road, adjacent to a waste water treatment plant and a drop kick from where a new Route 1 interchange is slated to open in 2014.
Today, it’s a hushed and open expanse. But boosters of the proposed $18-million Kent County Sports Complex visualize the 85-acre swath humming with soccer tournaments, marching band competitions and lacrosse clinics, drawn by the venue’s decidedly central location in the mid-section of the Mid-Atlantic region.
“It’s in No Man’s Land—and Everybody’s Land,” says Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism.
The least populous of Delaware’s three counties, Kent has been hemorrhaging jobs in recent years, growing more dependent on state government and Dover Air Base for revenue. Bank of America laid off 600 workers at the Blue Hen Corporate Center in Dover. CitiGroup and Discover Card each cut 100 positions. Sunroc Water Cooler shut down its Dover operation and there have been cutbacks at Playtex, General Foods and Scott Paper, as well.
NASCAR has driven visitors to Dover Downs for years. But in a stubbornly soft economy, attendance is in a tailspin. For the June 2011 meet, 80,000 tickets were sold for the 135,000-seat venue, Small notes.
“We need to find a new destination driver,” she says.
Linda Parkowski, the state’s director of tourism, got the ball rolling toward a sports complex in 2009.
“She was receiving requests for proposals for large regional sporting events and saw the potential there,” says Vic Schimp, general manager of the Sheraton Dover Hotel and a past chair of the Delaware Hotel and Lodgings Assoc.
A soccer dad himself, he has spent a lot of time on the road traveling to tournaments from South Jersey to Virginia.
“From my experience, soccer tournaments attract thousands of people, a good, clean family clientele,” he says.
The Greater Dover Committee, a nonprofit group of business and civic leaders, picked up the ball and ran with it, commissioning two feasibility studies. The Central Delaware and Milford Chamber and Kent Economic Partnership also support the proposal, in which the complex land would be owned by the government and leased to a private operator.
In June, Levy Court Commissioners gave the project the green light after examining study results.
But not everyone is ready to join the team. The Bond Bill Committee turned down a request to reallocate $6 million originally slated to help build a proposed civic center in Dover.
That money would have been a juicy carrot to hold out to a prospective sports complex operator. Instead, the committee voted to de-authorize $3 million in bonds to reduce state debt. The other $3 million will be earmarked to develop North Street in Dover.
“We hadn’t done enough homework,” says Sen. Brian Bushweller (D-Dover), a supporter of the sports complex. “The committee was not going to commit the money without a fully fleshed out proposal.”
Joe Mills, executive director of Kirkwood Soccer in New Castle, says the youth soccer market in Delaware is saturated and he anticipates losing a few events if the new facility is built.
“There are a lot of businesses, from Maine to West Virginia, competing for the same teams,” he says. “At the same time, participation in tournaments has dropped about 10 percent.”
Still, Mills believes Kent County can make a go of it by focusing on niches, such as adult teams and events that cater to the state’s growing Hispanic population.
“The risk is focusing on one sport or one group, like the indoor tennis teams of the 1980s,” he says. “Now those places are warehouses and indoor soccer venues.”
Can a sports complex in Kent County be successful?
Kirkwood Soccer Executive Director Joe Mills discusses the hurdles it may face and impact it could have in Delaware
Small first began contemplating a sports complex in 2007, when Delaware State University provided the home field for a Tournament of Bands competition of 150 high school marching bands.
“It was like NASCAR, with every restaurant busy and every hotel booked,” she recalls. “It opened our eyes as to what we could do if we had a facility to accommodate these kinds of events.”
The Tournament of Bands moved to another venue the next year because Delaware State had already scheduled its fields for university events. But Small is confident the county can woo the promoters back by offering a new home for the tournament.
“We can attract field hockey teams, lacrosse, any sport where you draw a line on a field,” she says.
In addition to its central location, the Frederica site offers a symbiotic relationship with the wastewater plant. Treated water from the facility would enable an operator to maintain lush fields at a lower cost, says Shelly Cecchett, executive director of the Greater Dover Committee.
“We are very excited that this process is green,” she says. “We are hoping that the access to treated water will be a very enticing nugget for an operator.”
Frederica, population 774, cannot accommodate the anticipated press of visitors. But Cecchett says the amenities needed to host visitors already are in place throughout the county, with Milford eight miles away and Dover 12 miles down the road. The new Interstate 1 interchange would provide ready highway access.
“The hotels are here, the restaurants are here—and they aren’t getting the use now that they could be,” she says.
Schimp also is intent on bolstering the county’s flagging hospitality industry, which burgeoned from 1,700 to 3,100 rooms just before the economy soured, according to numbers by the lodgings association.
“In the fall of 2007, things slowed down dramatically, especially corporate travel,” he says. “When supply goes up and demand goes down, it’s a perfect storm.”
Research at existing sports complexes indicates visitors are willing to drive a bit. For example, hotels patronized by families attending tournaments at United Sports in Downingtown, Pa., are located 16-32 miles from the playing fields.
Officials from Kent County went on a field trip to United, which was built in 1993 on 100 acres near the Route 30 interchange in Chester County.
The 127,000 square feet of indoor playing fields and 11 outdoor fields—nine turf and two synthetic—were developed with $15 million in private funds. The facility also includes a restaurant, a 30-foot rock-climbing wall and an 18-hole mini golf course.
United has succeeded in developing multiple revenue streams. Corporate partners include Brandywine Hospital, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Herr’s, the Pennsylvania-based potato chip company. The facility leases space to a variety of tenants, including a physical therapy group, a Jiu Jitsu school and the Independence, the Philadelphia women’s soccer team.
Even in a protracted down economy, venues are attracting players and dollars. United says its tournaments, special events and daily activates, funnel more than $7 million a year into the Chester County economy. Mills says Kirkwood’s three largest tournaments resulted in a $3.5 million infusion into hotels and restaurants in New Castle County.
U.S. Soccer reports that the six-day Youth Soccer Region I Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in June brought $12 million to the area, with more than 4,500 players, coaches, tournament officials and their families booking an estimated 10,000 room nights at hotels.
The Kent County study, by Don Schumacher & Associates, Inc., a Cincinnati-based sports marketing, management and consulting firm, suggests that Kent County would attract $5 million a year after the launch of the complex, growing to $18 million annually after 10 years.
The proposal currents calls for 15 fields, including 10 turf fields, four artificial surface fields, and a lighted turf field with 1,500 bleacher seats. The complex also would include an 800-spot parking lot and a 36,000-square-foot indoor facility, which would encompass a grass field with seating, restrooms, concessions, meeting room and a running track.
Currently, the Delaware Sports Commission and the state and county tourism offices plan to send out requests for proposals to current complex operators to gauge interest in running the complex. The goal is to identify three potential operators and go back to Levy Court by October.
Bushweller has not given up on persuading the state to offer a financial incentive to sweeten the deal.
“We are hopeful that we can go back in the future and obtain some sort of funding,” he says. “If we can demonstrate that we can offer government support, it will make it much easier to attract private investment.”