Ryan McCrady likened Springfield's future economic benefits from the $67 million sports complex approved April 18 by the City Council to much more than a ripple created by a rock dropped into a water puddle.
"We're going to be throwing a boulder into it with this project, and that's going to create a tremendous impact all across the community," said McCrady, president and chief executive officer of the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance, an economic development organization.
Proposals for a youth sports complex in various locations have been considered and then fizzled out since the mid-1990s, but this latest version – a public-private partnership to create Scheels Sports Park at Legacy Pointe – appears on track to become reality.
McCrady said plans call for it to open by the end of 2025 and become "one of the premier parks in the country."
An additional draw for the project will be a 150,000-square-foot air structure – billed as the largest permanent inflated building of its type in the world – allowing for year-round use of six indoor basketball courts or 12 volleyball courts and an artificial turf field convertible from a full soccer field to two youth baseball fields.
In addition to the construction of multiple outdoor fields for baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse and rugby, there will be a 27,000-square-foot specialty turf area with a concert stage and more than 25,000 square feet of buildings for support and administration. And there's eight additional acres set aside for a future conventional fieldhouse, with a hard roof, if demand at the complex warrants it.
There's some concern about the size of public subsidies for the 95-acre complex north of the Scheels sporting goods store on the city's south side, on the west side of MacArthur Boulevard and north of the Interstate 72 interchange. There's also concern that the financial and recreational benefits of the complex won't be shared by all areas of the city.
But those concerns appear to be more than offset by optimism and anticipation among elected officials and business leaders about the city's major entry into a new economic market – sports tourism – and how that market could boost the area's hospitality industry and generate more jobs, tax revenue and even residential growth.
"We're at a point of maximum momentum," McCrady told council members at an April 11 committee-of-the-whole meeting.
"I mean, we're looking at $25 million or $30 million a year in spending from people more than 90 miles away from here coming to our community," McCrady later told Illinois Times. "This is a unique project, and it's of the size and scale that's probably not typical of what we see here. For a lot of reasons, it might seem like this is something that's too big for our community to achieve. But I will say that all the analysis and the market study and everything else say otherwise."
Mayor Jim Langfelder said the site is "just an outstanding location. That area is going to explode when it comes into play. It's going to be a real game-changer for Springfield, no doubt about it."
The City Council action on April 18 amended a development agreement first approved in 2021. The new agreement is still funded by the same sources:
• An increase in the hotel-motel tax citywide from 7% to 8% that began in October 2021. Twenty-five percent of the current hotel-motel tax is being set aside for the sports complex.
• 71.4% of the city's portion of sales tax received on sales within the business district area that includes the park, above a base of $1.48 million annually.
The total maximum subsidy from the city has increased since 2021 because the developer now plans to build the complex in one phase rather than two, McCrady said. Under the original plan, the developer would have returned to the city and likely asked for additional subsidy dollars, so the accelerated construction schedule will save the city in the long run, he said.
The sales tax and hotel-motel tax subsidies will pay half of construction costs, financed over a 23-year period – totaling up to $33.5 million – though city government and taxpayers won't be responsible financially if the complex never opens or fails later. The developers must spend money first for construction to be reimbursed 50 cents on the dollar.
The sales and hotel-motel taxes also will go into a fund that also will cover up to $11.5 million out of $23 million in maintenance costs at the site. Maintenance is separate from the construction costs.
In addition, Springfield city government, as well as Sangamon County government, Springfield School District 186 and all other taxing entities have agreed to not collect additional property taxes associated with the construction for the life of the 23-year agreement.
The City Council plans to finance its share of construction costs, plus interest, through revenue bonds issued this year through the same bank – as yet unnamed – that will be used by the complex's owners, Springfield-based Legacy Pointe Development, to finance the developers' share of construction. The bonds will be issued after a City Council vote sometime before ground is broken on the project in May or June.
Repayment of the bonds will be made through future taxes generated by the project, and the developers and bank – not the city – will be liable if those tax revenues don't materialize, McCrady said.
The sports complex is expected to attract about 250,000 visitors to Springfield each year and increase visitors overall by at least 10% to 15% after the first year of operation, according to Scott Dahl, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"I don't think the city understands what the sports park will do for the surrounding area," he said. "These are new dollars and a new market coming to the community. That's what's exciting for us – creating a new travel market, and that's hard to do."
The sports complex should generate 60,000 more room nights booked each year, increasing hotel occupancy by 8%, according to Darin Dame, co-owner of Springhill Suites by Marriott near the complex and president of the Springfield Hotel and Lodging Association.
The association, which supports the project, would love to have seen it open a year or two ago, he said. "If this sports park goes in, it will have a big impact throughout Springfield," he said.
The increase in room nights could increase the city's average annual hotel occupancy from 55% (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) to 60%, Dame said. The indoor domed facility could be especially helpful during winter months, when hotel occupancy citywide ranges from 35% to 45%, he said.
Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan said the project "has been long forthcoming."
Donelan should know. He was executive assistant to former Mayor Tim Davlin, whose administration worked with the state to extend MacArthur Boulevard south of Wabash and create the interchange with I-72.
That project cost $47 million in state, federal and local funds, and the interchange opened in April 2010. Davlin also worked to attract Scheels, which was constructed and opened in 2011, Donelan said. Scheels has secured naming rights for the sports complex; terms of the agreement haven't been disclosed.
Donelan called the sports complex a "game-changing development" that will "draw more attention, draw more people and draw more activity, which is what we need here."
Many proposed projects
Earlier ideas for a sports complex include the STAR (Springfield Training & Athletic Recreational) Center on 123 acres that eventually would become the new home of Calvary Church near I-72 and Second Street. The idea was for that center to replace or supplement Robin Roberts Stadium (Lanphier Park) for baseball and Memorial Stadium for football.
An earlier sports park proposal in that part of the city, for what would have been known as the Xanadu sports project, fell apart in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Springfield resident Dameon Johnson said he remains interested in developing a $300 million sports complex and amusement park, dubbed STAR Village, somewhere on the city's east side.
The City Council in 2019 decided against paying up to $35,000 to Ohio-based Hotel and Leisure Advisors to conduct a feasibility study on Johnson's proposal. But Johnson, director of the nonprofit East Springfield Community Center Commission, said he was able to pay for the study with about $65,000 from an $809,000 state grant the commission received. The grant was funded by cannabis tax revenues.
Results of the study will be released by the end of the summer, Johnson said. He said he is confident the commission can find investors for a second major sports park.
When the new MacArthur/I-72 interchange first opened, it created new growth opportunities for Springfield. A sports park was one of several options under consideration at that time, Donelan said. But as the interchange was being built, the focus for that part of the city was on potential retail possibilities.
In the latter part of the 2010s, Legacy Pointe Development hoped to attract an outlet mall to be known as The Outlets at Springfield. Legacy Pointe worked with other companies, including Simon Property Group, the same organization that operates White Oaks Mall, on the concept. But the idea never moved forward and has been shelved. The growth in online shopping was cited as a major reason for the lack of progress.
The trend actually worked out for the best, Dahl said, by shifting attention to another part of the Legacy Pointe site where Scheels Sports Park could be developed as an ideal tourism destination.
Despite the failed prior plans for a sports complex, interest in the concept remained in the mid-2010s, according to Bob Laurent, an information technology director who, with his wife, Jackie, volunteer to operate The Hitting Center at 1800 S. Dirksen Parkway. The center is a community project of Calvary Church.
Laurent agreed to serve on an advisory group convened in 2018 by Langfelder to take another look at the concept of a sports park.
"Everybody has seen the need here but they always came up short," Laurent said, noting that St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols once visited Springfield and expressed interest in investing in a sports park here.
"I was asked to be the pied piper," said Laurent, 63, a Springfield native whose son, Phil, played in the San Diego Padres organization. "I didn't have an agenda. I didn't want anything other than the betterment of Springfield."
A public-private partnership
Bob Laurent said his work on the advisory group and his connection with Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), based in Clearwater, Florida, eventually led to a 2019 market analysis conducted by SFC and paid for by the city. The analysis outlined a step-by-step approach that led to commitments by Legacy Pointe Development and the city, Laurent said.
"We're rapidly approaching the end of this journey," said Laurent, a Cantrall resident. "Am I excited? Absolutely."
Laurent said he is thrilled at the likelihood of success for the public-private partnership, which he said is unique in the sports tourism industry. Most such complexes across the country are municipally owned, he said, but gate receipts and entry fees provide limited financial benefits, sometimes making the complexes difficult to finance and sustain.
The city's partnership with Legacy Pointe Development, along with the joint decision to have SFC manage the complex, will bring "substantial" benefits, Laurent said.
SFC operates more than 40 such youth sports complexes across the country and has connections and negotiating power to attract tournaments involving more than 100 teams, he said.
Springfield never has been able to host these large tournaments in the past, Dahl said.
The site also could provide spinoff business for smaller athletic facilities in the area when organizations inquire but aren't able to secure space at the complex because fields are booked, he said.
SFC said in a news release that a 2015 industry report by the Sports Events and Travel association, now called Sports ETA, valued the youth and amateur sports tourism industry at $9.45 billion per year in the United States. That figure increased to $39.7 billion in 2021, or a 320% increase in six years.
The growth is projected to continue and reach $77.5 billion in 2026, according to Wintergreen Research Inc.
Dahl said the Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to establish a "concierge service" for visiting sports teams and other users of the complex to make it easier for them to see the Abraham Lincoln sites and get to restaurants and attractions.
He credited the city's leaders for committing to assist with the project several years ago and making the developers and financial institutions more willing to support the concept.
Brent Schwoerer, the owner, operator and founder of Engrained, a craft brewery and restaurant next to Scheels, said he is excited about the sports complex coming even more than when retail was the focus.
"I think it's a great thing, honestly," he said. "It will bring more traffic from outside Springfield than even retail could."
Engrained is the only original restaurant opened at the site that survives. Other restaurants that opened and later closed include Quaker Steak & Lube, III Tomassos Italian Bistro and Fox Run Restaurant and Lounge.
Restaurants that have opened in their place are Casa Real at the former Quaker Steak site and Legacy Pointe Eatery at the former site of III Tomassos and Fox Run.
Schwoerer said Engrained has secured naming rights for a future Engrained Beer Pavilion at the sports park where Engrained's craft beers will be served. He wouldn't reveal terms of the deal.
Under agreements with the city and District 186, local middle school and high school teams would be guaranteed slots to practice and compete at the complex based on set rates. The complex also could become home to tournaments sponsored by the Illinois High School Association.
The development agreement provides the option for the Springfield Park District to receive a break on artificial turf for Robin Roberts Park and Chamberlain Park in the future, Langfelder said.
Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said he wonders whether youth recreational programs for youngsters from low-income families will be able to afford to pay for time at the complex. Those details have been elusive so far, he said.
"This has the potential to do the city good, but only if it raises up all people in the city," he said.
Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said he voted against the amended developer's agreement April 18, the only member of the council to do so, mainly because of the "massive subsidy to a private, for-profit enterprise, at the expense of more important city needs such as beautifying our city gateways, strengthening downtown and investing in our 'tipping-point' neighborhoods in older areas of town."
He also said he is concerned about bad weather knocking down the air structure, made of synthetic fabric and supported by the continuous inflow of air.
Supporters of the complex say the air structure will be insured, and a maintenance fund for replacement after the 20-year warranty is up will be created.
Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso said she isn't uncomfortable with the amount of subsidy for the project. Most of the land involved is in her ward.
"The developers have to do a lot to get that money," she said, adding, "This is not a ward project. This is a regional project."