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East County Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 2 years ago

Commissioners field questions about Premier Sports Campus

Premier complex will be under the microscope for a few years before future growth is determined.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

As Premier Sports Campus continues its “business as usual” mode of operation after being taken over this month by Manatee County, commissioners say it’s worth exploring another option.

Could the larger, overall site become a site to drive sports tourism?

First, commissioners say, the county must prove it can operate the facility efficiently at existing standards. If that happens, research could be done to see if the park could generate tourist dollars.

“I have no objections to it, but I don’t think we are there yet,” at-large Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. “We’ll have to see how it plays out. All options should be open.”

Since the county took over Premier Sports Campus on Dec. 15, it has continued to operate as a limited-access sports venue and is not open for daily recreational play, as is the case at other county park facilities. The intent is to continue operating that way.

The $5.2 million, 127-acre acquisition includes 22 athletic fields, in addition to 36 acres adjacent to the north to be used for an aquatics facility that is planned within the next five years. The county also has a two-year option to purchase another 53 acres at a price of $65,000 per acre.

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Manatee County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there is no long-term intent, at least by his organization, to expand Premier’s footprint into an all-encompassing venue to generate sports tourism.

“I’ve always been a big believer of the less is more theory — do little things really, really well and not just try to grab anything that’s out there in the market place,” Falcione said.

He said Manatee County already has strong sports tourism offerings such as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training facility, IMG Academy and Anderson Race Park.

“I don’t see the government looking to enhance what we already have,” said Falcione, adding that 15% of Manatee’s tourism is sports related. “It’s a great way to supplement visitation during non-peak times, but we are in the market place as a premier vacation destination, and that is really where we bring in that high demographic clientele that is going to pay top dollar.”

Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee’s Parks and Natural Resources Department, will be tasked with planning the future aquatics center just north of the Premier Sports Campus. His decisions on how the future aquatics center develops largely will be dictated by community need and funding for it, which would be built with impact fees but maintained out of the county’s operating budget.

Facilities likely will be geared to meet community need with a pool large enough to accommodate school swim meets. Tennis and pickleball courts could be in the plan along with air-conditioned space for meetings and staff offices, like the county has at its G.T. Bray Park facility.

Hunsicker said he expects the county will be able to buy some of the additional acreage offered by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. with impact fee revenue, but such a purchase and the land’s future use will be determined by goals established by the County Commission. He does not foresee any drastic changes, such as the creation of a sports mecca at Premier and its surrounding property.

Several commissioners said thinking larger-scale could be valuable.

Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said he would not rule out the idea of constructing a more regional facility that could attract state-level or national tournaments. Doing so, however, would depend on whether the county proves itself effective operating Premier Sports Campus.

Lakewood Ranch Chargers competitive U11 Girls soccer player Layla Larrick lines up a practice shot at Premier Sports Campus Jan. 18.

“I think we’re going to have to watch it play out,” Jonsson said of Premier’s future. “If we can prove we can operate it efficiently, absolutely. Anything that will drive tourism to the (area) and maximize the taxpayers dollars we put into the facility (should be considered).”

That could mean aquatics, tennis or any other sport that finds a home at the facility.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino agreed the “mecca” concept should not be taken off the table. She thinks of the Hockessin Athletic Club in Hockessin, Del., where her daughter, Meredith Rombach, is a member. It’s a fitness complex with three pools, a two-story water slide, fitness, dance and martial arts classes, camps for children and a preschool, among other offerings.

“That place is hopping seven days a week,” she said. “I think that would be successful here. It’s a real destination. The center of (the county’s) gravity is moving east. It makes good sense.”

But DiSabatino noted such a venture likely would have to be some sort of public-private partnership because of the significant cost to construct and operate that type of facility.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, whose district includes the greater Lakewood Ranch area, said she expects the Premier site to become similar to what is available at G.T. Bray Park, but not an overall mecca for sports tourism. The county may, however, construct a larger-scale aquatics center that could attract local, state and national swim events.

“It’s something we’ll have to consider,” she said.

Commissioner Betsy Benac was wary of any expansions.

“We really have not had any discussion about expanding beyond community needs,”  Benac said. “The government has to take things slow. We have to make sure we understand what the costs are going to be and how we are going to operate with the funds we have. We’re not trying to make a profit.”

The aquatics facility, she said, is needed and could be something more in line with the North Shore Aquatics Complex in St. Petersburg, which has a 50-meter pool, 25-meter warmup pool, play pool and other amenities.

Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said ideas for Premier’s future will expand in the coming years.

“We’ll see what we think it’s capable of at that time. I think it will evolve,” Whisenant Trace said. “It has a track record already of bringing people in. I definitely think we will continue with that.”

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