Manatee County has big plans for Premier Sports Campus now that it’s playing with public sector funds.
On a Sunday morning, hundreds of soccer players and spectators dotted the fields at Premier Sports Campus, transforming the manicured grass into a blur of hustling players and a sea of black-and-white balls.
For players participating in the Florida Youth Soccer Association’s Commissioner’s Cup, it was just another tournament at an elite facility — exactly what was on the docket for 2018.
And yet it was different.
The campus, which Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch opened in April 2011 as a way to help stimulate the economy, is no longer privately owned. On Dec. 15, it shifted into the hands of Manatee County. A $5.2 million acquisition, the deal included all 22 fields and 127 acres, as well as an additional 36 acres on which Manatee County has five years to construct an aquatics complex.
Manatee County has not outlined a concrete plan for the aquatics complex, except to say it’s going to happen; East County is finally getting a community pool.
Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker says the facility will likely be comparable to G.T. Bray Park in West Bradenton. The pool will be large enough to host high school swim competitions and other events. Local swim coaches would love to see it draw a regional crowd like the North Shore Aquatics Center in St. Petersburg, but the decision is up to county commissioners and depends largely on the funding allocated for construction and operations.
The complex will include tennis courts and a building with air-conditioned office space.
Pickleball could also be in the mix.
“Our facilities are gauged in size to the area of need,” Hunsicker says.
Impact fees will pay for construction. Operating costs will come out of the county’s general revenue stream.
Premier itself will continue to run the campus “business as usual,” says Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Manatee County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Now that SMR is out of the picture, the CVB is in charge of Premier’s day-to-day-operations.
Much of its existing staff, including groundskeepers, stayed on to handle tournaments, league play and field maintenance. The campus is only open to the public during scheduled events. (More than 1,000 Manatee and Sarasota county kids participate in Premier Campus’ programs.)
“The partnership with (prior owner) Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has been flawless,” Falcione says. “Right now it’s status quo. We’re going to serve our contracts; some are multiyear deals.”
Falcione says the only noticeable changes at first will be the addition of a second restroom facility and a multi-purpose building for tournament organizers and other groups to use for training, meetings and other needs. These two projects will be funded using tourism tax dollars and are slated to break ground at the end of the summer.
The county says it will focus on operating Premier during the next year, settling into the operation’s ebb and flow, before re-evaluating its tournament roster. CVB officials have already asked Premier’s existing clients, such as the Nike Friendlies, for input on how to best utilize the facility.
With an operating budget of about $649,000, Premier has a cash-flow deficit of about $203,000. The CVB is committed to closing that gap as much as possible, if not completely.
“We want the right event at the right time that’s going to bring the right return on investment,” Falcione says. “We are in a situation where we can really choose the type of business we want to come here. The county bought a complex that was well run and is well liked by all the customers that utilize it. It’s our job to maintain it as it has been, and we feel confident we will continue to make it better. We’re taking the baton and running with it.”
Could Premier grow?
According to data from the Manatee County Convention and Visitors Bureau, sports tourism accounts for about 15% of the county’s tourism revenue. Although Manatee County commissioners have indicated there may be opportunity for Premier Sports Campus to grow into a larger venue, CVB Executive Director Elliott Falcione says taking it to that level is not a top priority right now.
The CVB will focus on honing Premier’s operations to make it run as efficiently and profitably as possible.
Sports tourism is especially important in the summer and fall. It helps keep cash flowing in Florida’s off-season. Tourists on a leisurely vacation typically spend more money than people who flock to town for sporting events. They book longer hotel stays, so Falcione says the county needs to carefully balance the number of available hotel rooms with the number of projected visitors.