Plan for athletic fields expansion relies on private money
Sheila McLaughlin reports:
At 435 acres, Voice of America MetroPark off Cox Road is the flagship of the Butler County system and one of the newest parks in the region.
Millions are being spent on it to build a $24 million athletic complex that is counted on to draw regional and national tournaments from the eastern United States and to pump an estimated $26 million a year into the local economy by five years after the full complex is up and running.
The $3 million first phase of expansion at Voice of America is under way, the construction of 22 natural-turf, multipurpose fields. Park officials expect them to be open for tournament play in fall 2014.
- Breaking ground on VOA Park’s athletic complex
- Coyotes brought in to guard VOA Park’s growing athletic fields
A problem remains, though. Namely money.
With park development grants nearly impossible to get, the future of the complex hangs in the balance as Butler County MetroParks and tourism officials try to drum up private money to make it more than just fields for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey or cricket.
A fieldhouse with concession and restrooms needs to be built, and eight or nine planned baseball and softball fields are on hold until more money comes through. So is an amphitheater that is expected to draw concerts and throngs of people.
Park officials want to install artificial turf on nine of the multipurpose fields to get more tournament play out of them. Estimates show it would cost $5 million for the artificial turf. That cost does not include lighting, scoreboards or other equipment.
There are roads to extend, sewer and electric lines to install, and parking lots to build to handle the expanded park use.
The first phase was made possible by a $1 million contribution from the Butler County Visitors Bureau to be paid over the next decade. The park system, which receives about $3.8 million annually for six years from a first-time park levy passed in November 2010, is contributing the rest.
“It’s largely driven by our ability to interest partners and sponsors in this,” MetroParks Executive Director Jon Granville said of completing the park. “Our plans are not to go back to our local taxpayers and ask them for more money every time we come up with a good idea.”
Selling naming rights among options discussed
Granville said he’s talking with funding prospects, although he’s guarded about who those are. Naming rights on the athletic complex and amphitheater are part of the discussion, he said. Granville thinks he’ll have an announcement by the end of the year.
UC Health’s West Chester Hospital, which can be seen from the park, is in the mix of potential donors. Spokesman Grant Wenzel said MetroParks has approached the hospital about naming rights at the complex. No decision has been made.
“You have to do it first class if you want to draw in the tournaments,” said Tim Dimke, executive director of the Rockford Park District in Illinois. The Rockford district has 60 fields at its Sportscore One and Sportscore Two complexes, which have natural turf fields. Last year, the parks hosted 43 soccer and softball tournaments.
Dimke knows firsthand how competitive the regional sports tourism market is. Rockford parks lost tournaments when a city outside Kansas City, Kan., built 12 lighted synthetic soccer fields with a hotel right next door – something Rockford couldn’t offer, Dimke said.
Lost tournaments meant lost money, he said.
An economic impact study showed that Rockford Park District lost 11 percent of its tournaments each year from 2007 to 2010, during the heart of the economic downturn. That translated into a $1.47 million loss in regional income, including $178,000 in annual taxes to local governments.
The Rockford district now is in the midst of a $43 million project to install artificial turf and lights on seven existing fields and build an indoor sports complex for basketball courts, volleyball courts and soccer fields. Funding will come from a new hotel tax, state and other grants, private sponsorships for naming rights, and contributions from local governments, Dimke said.
There’s talk of two new hotels’ being built nearby. “You have to have hotels ready to welcome these kids and these teams,” Dimke said.
Hotels are close, plentiful: ‘Can’t find a better location’
MetroPark officials say hotels aren’t a problem. The West Chester area is home to at least 10 hotels and motels with a variety of price ranges. Most are two exits down Interstate 75 around Union Centre Boulevard.
A new hotel will be built less than a mile from Voice of America Park in the Liberty Center retail project, which is expected to open in 2015.
“You can’t find a better location. It’s to die for,” Granville said.
And the land was free. West Chester Township donated it to MetroParks in 2007 because it didn’t have the money to develop it into the park residents said they wanted, with athletic fields, gardens and other amenities.
That came after residents voted down a park levy.
The land originally was the Voice of America Bethany relay station, which opened during World War II to send shortwave American radio programming across the world. The station was decommissioned in 1994, and West Chester acquired the site through the federal Lands-to-Parks program. A museum remains on the site fronting Tylersville Road with the park behind it.
New recreational facilities follows a national trend
Transforming Voice of America into an athletic complex fits a national trend in park development, said Jeff Soule, director of outreach for the American Planning Association.
“There is a tremendous demand for recreational facilities. At the same time there has not been the same growth of what we would characterize as traditional park space,” he said.
That presents a balancing act for park officials – and Granville is well aware of it.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact there has to be some time where regular visitors have some use of their facilities, too. So it’s kind of a balancing act,” he said.
Local teams will be free to reserve the fields during the week, but the fields will be reserved for tournament play on the weekends, he said.
The fields will be located on the other end of the park from the 35-acre stocked fishing lake, boathouse, walking trails, playground and lodge.
Park users aren’t too worried about tournaments elbowing in on their time at Voice of America. They just want to see the expansion get built.
Barb Wykoff hadn’t been to the park for six years until last month. She was getting her exercise walking around the fishing lake on a breezy warm morning just before Memorial Day weekend..
“It will bring more people into West Chester. I’m sure of that, and the economy needs that,” Wykoff said.
Carolyn Burns makes a 25-mile trek from Walnut Hills with a friend on Tuesdays to fish at Voice of America’s stocked lake when the weather warms. “It’s peaceful and clean out here. That’s why we come,” she said.
As for the park’s expansion keeping the fish from biting? No worries. Burns is all in favor.
“We need more places where people can work out and play their sports,” Burns said.