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Manatee exec says indoor gymnasium would be boon for tourism

Elliott Falcione says Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch should have an indoor athletic facility component.


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When it comes to the fastest growing participation in sports and activities, ClubIndustry.com ranks "adventure racing" as No. 1, followed by mixed martial arts and lacrosse in its top three.

But if the focus shifts to the fastest growing sports in terms of drawing tourists to a destination, Elliott Falcione said studies by IMG Academy have shown that it is an old standard that rules.

Basketball.

Falcione, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said basketball events are heavyweights when it comes to economic impact for an area. For example, six Louisville, Kentucky, youth basketball events in July 2021 at the Kentucky Exposition Center generated an estimated $33 million in economic impact. The Kentucky Exposition Center reported more than 28,000 athletes participated.

In Florida, where the hot summer months discourage tourists, Falcione said indoor basketball events can carry a huge impact. That could add to the estimated $256.1 million that sports-related visitors spent in Manatee County during 2021 according to statistics gathered by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

On June 22, Falcione will be one of three headliners — Justin Kristich, the tournament director for the LECOM Suncoast Classic, and Stephen Rodriguez, the CEO of Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, are the other two — discussing sports tourism during a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance luncheon at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club.

Falcione, who manages the Premier Sports Campus as part of his duties with the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he expects Manatee County will have an indoor basketball gym component as it continues to develop its park just north of Premier Sports Campus.

"We need an indoor component," he said of the county's park. "We had (similar) discussions about the pool, 'Do you want to build just for the residents or do you want to build for both the residents and to generate dollars?'"

In the case of the $13.6 million aquatics complex, Manatee County currently is designing a competition pool for the park that will be able to host competitive meets on a regional scale or even bigger. Work on the aquatics facility is targeted for a May 2024 opening. Also under construction are a $17.7 million library that has a completion date of June 2023 and a $4.8 million pickleball/raquetball complex that is expected to be finished in spring 2023.

The indoor basketball facility, or multipurpose gym, is still only a discussion at this point. Falcione said it would be a boon to the county to construct it.

Matt Porter, the county's parks recreation manager, said Manatee County has just one public indoor gym, at John Marble Park, that has more than one basketball court. The John Marble Park gym holds two full basketball courts.

"Our main focus is to get indoor gymnasiums," Porter said of the parks department.

Porter emphasized that plans for a gymnasium are in their infancy and that others in county administration will make those calls along with the commissioners.

He did say that generating economic dollars is about more than just how many basketball courts an indoor facility can offer. He said the entire makeup of the park could be attractive to teams or programs that want to train in Florida.

"They might want the shallow end of a pool for training, or a weight room," he said. "They might care whether there is housing close to the site. It's all about being a well-rounded facility because they might want more than just one amenity."

Discussions about a possible indoor gym at the new park also include whether the gym should be a basketball or multi-function facility.

If Manatee County needs some advice, they could talk to Rodriguez, who also is speaking at the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance event. In May, Sarasota County committed $20 million, pending a study, that will help build a $40 million boathouse and basketball facility at Nathan Benderson Park.

For years, the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy had been raising funds for a projected $10 million boathouse. Sarasota County has approved a plan to build a 100,000-square-foot gymnasium as the top floor of a two-story complex that will be a boathouse on the first floor.

It was in reaction to a Sarasota strategic plan released Jan. 11 that told of the need for an indoor sports complex that would generate tourist economic impact by hosting national tournaments.

Besides basketball, Falcione will discuss other sports and recreational opportunities, such as cornhole.

"As silly as it sounds, Bradenton was listed No. 2 in the country for cornhole destinations," he said. "No. 1 was Branson, Missouri, and No. 3 was Las Vegas. We have chatted with a cornhole group (the American Cornhole Organization) that hosted the World Cornhole Championships here (in 2021), about creating the largest cornhole tournament in the world at our 23 contiguous fields at Premier Sports Campus. They were intrigued with it, and that's how we need to think about Lakewood Ranch. It would feed the hospitality industry."

While pickleball is a fast growing sport in terms of participation, Falcione said that doesn't necessarily translate to tourist dollars. He said, like swimming, it is somewhat of a niche market. But he said the possibilities are being studied.