Gaston County commissioners to consider loan to buy land for proposed outdoor sports complex

For more than 10 years, Gaston County leaders have been looking for the right spot to build a multifield outdoor sports complex that could reinvigorate the local economy.

But potential sites never seemed to measure up. One rough tract of land north of Interstate 85 showed promise until engineers estimated it would cost about $25 million to build infrastructure at the location.

Now, officials think they may have found the perfect place for the sports complex: a former dairy farm in south Gastonia next to the city of Gastonia’s 60-acre Martha Rivers Park.

Later this month, county commissioners are expected to vote on a proposal to lend Gaston Travel and Tourism $2.2 million toward buying the 300 acres.

If approved, travel and tourism officials say they can start searching for $10 million in grants, contributions and naming rights to develop the complex.

“It would give us a hunting license to go out and look for money,” said Travel and Tourism Director Walt Israel. “We can’t do anything without the land.”

In 2006, officials considered building a sports complex with a California-based company that created replicas of major-league baseball stadiums such as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium for youth baseball and softball.

But officials dropped the replica-field plan, which would have cost from $18 million to $20 million, and focused on multiple tournament fields for $13 million. A recent feasibility study showed that eight or nine years after construction, the complex could be losing up to $8,900 a year but generating nearly $500,000 in tax revenues for the county.

Travel and tourism has $1 million in its reserve account for the land purchase. The loan from the county would be repaid with interest through the hotel occupancy tax, Israel said.

Phase one of the sports complex would be developed on 120 acres and include 13 ball fields for players ages 14 and over. The larger fields can be used for football, soccer and lacrosse for 14 to 16 weeks out of a year.

The goal is to make Gaston a destination for young ball players and their families. Sports complexes of one kind or another are popular around the region.

In August, the new Novant Health BMX Supercross Track opened in Rock Hill’s Riverwalk. The city of Charlotte may redevelop Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium into an amateur sports complex.

Chicago-based AECO Technical Services Inc. did a feasibility study for the Gaston sports complex and mentioned similar projects in Rocky Mount, Rock Hill, Union, S.C., and Marietta, Ga.

According to the study, Snowden Grove Park in Southaven, Miss., got an economic development award from the state of Mississippi for the impact the complex has made on the local economy.

The park outside Memphis, Tenn., has 17 ballfields on 300 acres where soybeans used to grow.

For the Memphis region, tournaments at Snowden Grove Park were listed as the second most common reason for visitors booking hotel rooms, the study said.

Wes Brown, interim director of Southhaven parks and recreation, said the complex has been “wildly successful,” pumping $22 million into the local economy.

Even with other sports complexes an hour’s drive away in Memphis, Oxford, Miss., and Jackson, Tenn., business is still booming at Snowden Grove, Brown said.

Spartanburg County’s Tyger River Park with 13 youth baseball/softball fields opened in March 2012 and since then has hosted 79 tournaments involving 3,600 teams.

Jim Campbell, interim parks and recreation director, said the park takes in about $400,000 a year and costs $1 million to operate.

Still, the complex has been “a pretty significant success for the hospitality folks,” he said. “We have an overflow in hotels when we have tournaments. To reap the maximum benefits, you’ve got to have hotel space or they go to neighboring counties.”

According to Gaston travel and tourism, there are 25 hotels in the county with 1,434 rooms, most in the city of Gastonia.

Tracy Philbeck, chairman of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, thinks the sports complex could have a larger economic impact for the county than a new company.

“Travel and tourism is thinking outside the box,” he said. “We have to do what we can to create a better economic situation.”

Even if the sports complex fails, Philbeck said the county will still own a prime piece of land that wasn’t purchased with property taxes.

Commissioner Chad Brown also thinks travel and tourism has done a “great job” with the concept. He envisions a complex that encompasses not only baseball, but soccer, basketball and football.

“I love baseball,” he said. “But I think we need one complex everybody can buy into. Right now, I think we all need to sit down and talk together and not rush to judgment. I want more information.”

Commissioner Mickey Price said the board is OK with buying land for the complex, but “I’m just concerned about travel and tourism’s ability to pay the money back for construction.”

He also said the county parks and recreation is working on getting a matching state grant of $500,000 to build ball fields at Biggerstaff Park in Dallas. That might compete with the sports complex and take away revenue, he said.

Looking back on the 10-year search for a place to build the sports complex, commissioner Joe Carpenter said that at first he’d been “a little reluctant” about the project. But he supports it now that a location has been nailed down.

“Even if it’s never built, we could end up with property for an industrial park,” he said.

As things now stand the complex “appears to be shaping up,” said Carpenter. “If it’s top of the line, people will want to come.”