If we build it, will they come?

TDA eyes sports complexes for economic development
By DeeAnna Haney | Mar 15, 2013
Photo by: DeeAnna Haney

Like the old song says, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," could be what more people will be saying in Haywood County if a proposed occupancy tax increase is approved.

In an effort to generate more money for the county and in turn attract more tourists to the area, local leaders have voted in favor of an increase in occupancy taxes to fund projects that would do just that.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) plans to create a Tourism Product Development Fund with the estimated extra $400,000 that would come from the tax increase from 4 to 6 percent.

TDA has been discussing ways to increase the number of visitors to the county for several years, and they suggest improving and building sports complexes could be one way to do it.

If passed, extra funds generated by the higher tax paid by those renting hotel, motel, bed and breakfast or vacation rentals will be earmarked for capital improvements. But the main question is, if more sports complexes are built, will people come to use the facilities?

While many say sports complexes are economically feasible, others say raising taxes is not the answer.

Canton is already ahead of the “ballgame” in terms of sports arenas. The International Sports Complex (ISP) near the Beaverdam community was built in 2004.

The original idea for the ISP involved six fields, said the Canton Town Manager Al Matthews, who is also a representative on the TDA board. That included not only the current baseball fields, but also soccer fields, batting cages and a cross-country track.

But it’s an expensive endeavor and has not come to fruition because of lack of funds. The current fields attract several tournaments each year, but about $450,000 is needed to light them and even more funding is needed to build the other three fields.

County commissioners and the Town of Waynesville have also purchased 19 acres of land in Jonathan Creek for the purpose of developing another sports complex, but they have not yet found funding for that project.

Sports facilities are a benefit

Mark Clasby, director of EDC for the county, says there’s no doubt that sports complexes are economically feasible.

With the three fields in Canton, he’s seen teams come from out of town to play in tournaments from spring through fall, and when they aren’t playing sports, they are staying in local hotel rooms and eating at local restaurants.

“They are very good for the county. From a tourism standpoint, it’s always the 'heads in beds' mindset. I think it has a positive impact from an economic standpoint,” Clasby said.

There’s even talk about involving sports fields owned and operated by local schools to attract even bigger tournaments.

Right now, schools have a policy that prohibits them from charging anyone to use their sports facilities. But if the policy is changed, the sports complexes in Canton and Jonathan Creek could work in conjunction with the schools.

“Now you’ve got a collaboration of complexes that connect the dots and have an even bigger impact,” Clasby said.

Like all large projects, the most difficult part is finding the money. But, if the occupancy tax rate hike is passed, he expects it would only take a couple years to fund the project.

“At current volumes, which are still down from before the recession, that would generate about $450,000 a year, which is a lot of money. A part of that could be used toward leveraging additional funding. So, I think in a couple years you would certainly have enough money to start infrastructure, so it wouldn’t be really too far into the future,” he said.

With the amount of interest in the Canton complex, Brandon Taylor, recreation director for Canton, said it’s not a matter of “if” players will come.

“They’re already here, we’re just having to send some of them out of the county because we don’t have enough fields for them to play on right now,” he said.

According to statistics from the TDA, Haywood County lost about 1,100 hotel room stays to Buncombe County from one tournament series last year. That’s because the tournament play was split between Canton and Asheville fields, and because the fields in Canton are not lit, the later games were played in Asheville.

If more complexes are built, someone will have to market them to out-of-town teams, but Canton already has that, too. There are already people dedicated to getting information about availability of the fields through USSSA.

Last weekend, several youth teams poured into the complex for an umpire training scrimmage coming from Hickory, Greenville, South Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Kingsport. In the past, teams have come from as far away as West Virginia and Ohio.

It’s the impact those out-of-towners have on the local economy that could make all the difference, Taylor said. “Youth sports bring family oriented people into the county."

A group of players and their families rented a cabin in Maggie Valley the weekend of a tournament last year. And the Waynesville Country Club Inn and the Maggie Valley Inn and Conference Center were filled to the brim after offering players rooms at a discounted price.

During their stay, players and their families were able to take advantage of what the rest of the town had to offer where they stayed — golfing, hiking, shopping and more.

“You don’t have that at these other sports venues. Haywood County gives you so many more lodging options,” he said.

Another marketing tool

David Blevins, a member of the EDC board, agrees that Haywood is the perfect place for sports facilities because of the abundance of attractions to market along with them. He pointed to Cataloochee, Blue Ridge Parkway, Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum and Lake Junaluska as examples.

But those attractions alone are not enough.

“We’ve had these things for a while. We can paint the barn every year, but it’s not going to grow the herd,” Blevins said.

Blevins is a proponent for any type of economic development that would draw tourists to the county, not just sports complexes.

“I believe that because we already have a start on sports complexes and they are a proven business model on economic impact to the lodging industry, that would be where you start,” he said.

He cited several case studies of other municipalities that jumped on the sports complex bandwagon years ago, and are reaping millions of dollars in benefits.

For example, the town of Rocky Mount held 27 tournaments with 426 players total in the 2008-2009 season. About 60 percent of the visitors to those games were from out of town, according to the town’s statistics, and 30 percent of them spent the night in town. That year, Rocky Mount’s overall economic impact from the tournaments was about $7 million.

That’s not to say that sports complexes are the only possible economic development project to attract tourists, said Blevins.

Other cities that have raised their occupancy tax for product development have found revenue in areas other than sports. Henderson County added 1 percent to its rate to save the Flat Rock Playhouse and Swain County is using its tax to help pay for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.

Buncombe County has gathered $13 million since 2001 to fund projects at the Grove Arcade, Asheville Art Museum, the Orange Peel, signage in town and more.

These are all things that Blevins said could happen here, it just comes down to deciding what projects will be most marketable and profitable.

There are many, though, who believe that increasing the tax will be a deterrent to tourists.

The Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen recently approved supporting the legislation to increase the tax, but not after much debate from local business owners and board members. Because the town brings in 55 percent of the county’s occupancy taxes, some expressed the belief that the money from the increase should be directed to Maggie.

“You’re still creating a tax on people who aren’t here yet… we’re supposed to create an environment that will bring people in,” said Alderman Phillip Wight during a February board meeting. “Right or wrong I want to see the money spent in Maggie Valley.”

Alderman Mike Matthews said many people against the tax don't want the county to be able to borrow against the revenue, because paying it back could rest on the backs of taxpayers as opposed to just tourists.

In a recent letter to the editor, Maggie resident Kyle Edwards said, “It should not be the responsibility of the accommodation owners to make capital improvements to county facilities.”

With or without sports complexes, Blevins said that if the county doesn’t work to find a project that makes the county unique and attractive to tourists, they will eventually stop coming here altogether.

“If we don’t do something we’re going to be left behind and the train’s already running. We’re losing ground in the competition for the tourist dollar,” Blevins said.