Voters may get to decide in 2020 if a new multi-million dollar sports complex is worth it in Lee County
On a recent Saturday, Mike Santucci and his family packed up their SUV and headed to Wake Forest to watch his son Michael’s Carolina Stars youth baseball team could play in a travel baseball tournament.
For the next two days, between watching Michael, 13, play ball, the family filled their car with gas, paid for a hotel room, and spent money on meals at restaurants. This has been a ritual for the Santucci family for the last four years.
And they’re just one of dozens of families in Lee County — and hundreds more across the state — who make these trips as many as 20 times each year. With them goes thousands of dollars that likely won’t ever find their way back to Lee County.
Instead, their money goes to hotels and restaurants and sporting goods stores and gas stations in Raleigh or Fayetteville or Rocky Mount. And all of the sales tax they pay goes into the coffers of Wake or Nash or Cumberland counties, giving leaders there a revenue stream Lee County just doesn’t have.
“We go to eat as a team, easily 25 to 30 people,” the elder Santucci explained. “And we always see a couple of other teams in the restaurant as well. In a small town like Sanford, that would be a whole night’s revenue for a restaurant.”
As the popularity of travel youth sports — particularly baseball, softball and soccer — has increased, cities and counties across North Carolina and elsewhere have capitalized, building sports complexes to host these tournaments. In turn, they’ve acted as economic catalysts in a variety of ways.
Youth sports tourism, as it is known, is now a $9 billion industry according to HBO’s “Real Sports,” which profiled Rocky Mount and its complex in 2017. Families are no longer taking vacations to the beach or to an amusement park — instead they’re spending their off-time on what an industry buzz now describes as “tourna-cations.”
Meanwhile, regardless of the sport, Lee County simply has not been able to get in on the action. While baseball isn’t completely under-served from a facilities standpoint, the community does lack a centralized location suitable for hosting multiple games at once, and when it comes to soccer — arguably one of the fastest-growing youth sports around — there isn’t a single regulation field in the county.
But Lee County may be ready to come off the bench and get into the youth sports tourism game itself. With each passing day, it appears more and more likely that the Lee County Board of Commissioners will place an estimated $25 million bond initiative on the 2020 ballot asking voters to decide whether to fund a multi-field sports complex here in Sanford.
It’s a big question with big implications for the county’s future, but for many it’s an idea for which the time seems just right.
When Chet Mann ran for mayor of Sanford in 2013, he did so on a multi-point plan to make the city “open for business.”
Six years later, many of the bullet points Mann said he hoped would help revitalize the local economy, and, more specifically, create an environment that he labeled “Destination Sanford” — completing the downtown streetscape project, leveraging our abundance of water and sewer capacity as an asset for growth, creating a tourism authority, pushing a series of public art installations as an attraction, and restructuring the working relationship between the business community and local government’s economic development efforts into a public-private partnership known as the Sanford Area Growth Alliance (SAGA) — have been achieved.
But one notable goal remains to be realized: “Create a 21st century multi-purpose sports complex,” is one of the few bullet points left in Mann’s 2013 campaign agenda that hasn’t been crossed off..
“Develop multiple soccer, baseball, softball fields and volleyball courts,” the document continues. “This initiative will lead to further economic development by bringing hundreds of visitors to Sanford to stay overnight in our hotels, (eating in our) restaurants and (visiting our) convention center.”
“We’ve seen these facilities all over the state, just from our experience with our own kids in youth sports,” Mann said. “We’ve spent hundreds of dollars staying in hotels in other towns we’d go to, and sometimes we’d be playing in games against people from our own town. We were eating meals in those places, getting gas.”
The path from that early vision of a youth sports complex as a draw for local tourism has been winding and long — an idea that’s gone through a few iterations before arriving at its current form. Initially, the proposal was to put the fields at O.T. Sloan Park on Bragg Street, which proved unworkable for a number of reasons.
But in 2015, after identifying a plot of land at the intersection of Broadway Road and the U.S. 421 Bypass whose owner is willing to work with local leaders, Mann approached county government and floated splitting the cost of a feasibility study. And what that study showed was striking: 98 percent of people with children playing youth sports strongly or somewhat agreed that recreation played a large role in economic development (as well as 93 percent of the general public), but that residents had a low opinion of the community’s existing playing facilities. The study also estimated an annual $2 million in recurring economic activity if such a complex was built.
The study also resulted in a conceptual rendering which showed as many as eight rectangular fields for soccer, football or even lacrosse, and up to five baseball diamonds. While it’s only conceptual at this time and could take varying forms following the passage of the proposed bond, it’s easy to imagine the area in question — currently a wooded lot between the 421 bypass and the Core Mark facility on Broadway Road — and see the immediate potential not just for recreation but for further commercial development in the surrounding area.
“The road is being widened there, so there is some synergy to set it up for economic development as well as for recreation,” said Mann. “There’s even the possibility of putting a road behind that property that would lead to the area around (Lowes Home Improvement), which would obviously lead to a lot of possibilities.”
Some communities designate one field in their sports complexes for a true stadium that can house a collegiate summer league team, or even a minor league or semi-professional team, which is a distinct possibility if voters approve the 2020 bond (more on that soon). And with existing pro teams in Holly Springs, Fayetteville, Durham, and even Buies Creek for a brief time, the demand for higher-level sports entertainment in the region is more than evident.
Tim Blodgett moved to Sanford in 2011 and pretty quickly thereafter became involved in youth soccer. Having served in the U.S. Marine Corps and earning a master’s degree in parks and recreation, he says he only really knows two things — “the Marine Corps and youth sports.”
“I realized there was a huge under-served population in this community,” he said. “We have thousands of kids, and we don’t provide a lot for them to do. And then we complain when they’re in the streets. It’s frustrating.”
Blodgett has been able to channel that frustration, though, into action. Today, in addition to being president of Lee County’s nascent semi-pro San Lee Football Club, he’s also the director of coaching for the Sanford Area Soccer League, which serves about 750 kids in Lee County — all of whom have to play at the Lions Club Fairgrounds.
“The whole point of the San Lee FC was getting kids to understand that there’s something to strive for and build to and reach toward,” he said, explaining that he pretty immediately saw success with that initiative when nearly 800 people attended San Lee’s first game held at Southern Lee High School’s football field. “That alone shows you how much love there is for the game in this community.”
But San Lee had to relocate the following year to East Lee Middle School’s much smaller fields, and Blodgett now has his team playing on an astroturf field in the Jonesboro area that authorities have indicated to him needs significant upgrades if it’s going to remain open.
In both cases — those of San Lee FC, and of SASL — the lack of regulation soccer fields presents a huge challenge. SASL is at a disadvantage in hosting tournaments against other travel teams, and San Lee is in a sort of limbo without permanent facilities which can draw paying fans ($5 game tickets are one of the team’s only revenue sources, and without a professional stadium — something that could potentially be a part of the proposed complex — fans become more difficult to attract).
“It can be discouraging to the kids,” said Blodgett. “And think about that from the perspective of a semi-professional player. It’s a huge thing.”
Blodgett is a member of a roughly 30-member steering Mayor Mann established to guide the process of getting a sports complex on the ballot and then persuading voters to support it. He said from his perspective, the support is absolutely there for such a project.
“From my involvement with youth athletics, one of the biggest complaints we get is the field conditions,” he said. “And that limits how much growth we can get. I’m optimistic about it, and I would think all those youth sports parents are supportive too.”
Blodgett appears to be correct in his assessment. While a small number of citizens have questioned the project (when The Rant posted a much shorter story on this subject online in February, there were a handful of “the youth of our community deserve this type of investment” comments for every “it won’t benefit me”), any type of organized opposition has been difficult to come by.
“I haven’t heard any negativity. Any folks who are negative about this aren’t coming to me, or to our meetings,” Mann concurred. “Our job on this committee will be to really educate the citizenry about all of the great aspects of this so they can fully understand the benefits it will bring.”
A mural in downtown Sanford pays tribute to the town’s rich tradition of baseball, and it’s not just a pretty sign on a wall or a nod to a bygone era. Like many small towns in North Carolina, baseball has been king here for decades. The area’s two high schools — Lee County and Southern Lee — perennially field playoff-contending teams, with the former owning two state championships.
Finding players or teams in Sanford is not hard. And being situated almost directly in the center of the state, Sanford’s an easy drive from the Triad, Triangle, Fayetteville and even Charlotte. It seems like the perfect place for a tournament.
The problem is that there just aren’t many fields to play on, especially large regulation fields big enough for the older kids. The fields that exist locally are sprinkled throughout the county under a variety of ownership situations (some public, some private), rather than being grouped together in a central location the way many travel ball tournament directors and parents prefer.
While Tramway Road Park — the county’s most recent baseball construction, nestled between Southern Lee High School and San Lee Middle School — boasts four pristine fields, walkways, a two-story concession stand, and a playground, the configuration of the fields there has yet to attract a large number of tournaments or other events.
Two of the softball fields there can be used by smaller kids such as those in the Lee County Parks and Recreation summer leagues. The middle school field is smaller than full-size, though, and not suitable for kids older than 13. And priority at the high school field mainly goes to Southern Lee athletes.
Brad Watson is in charge of youth baseball scheduling in the Triangle area for USSSA, one of the major travel ball sanctioning bodies in the area along with Top Gun Sports, NC Game On and others. He said he schedules tournaments in Sanford when possible because the location is so great.
“I love Tramway Road Park’s design and how well it’s kept up,” said Watson. “But the problem is there are only three fields there that are usable, and there are eight or ten complexes within an hour of there that are much larger.”
A new complex like the one Lee County is considering would be a game changer, Watson said. “Sanford is a perfect location,” he said. “It’s a great area for us to draw 40 or so teams on a weekend.”
For all of the potential benefits of this project, “how are we going to pay for it” is a valid question. But it’s one that city and county leaders are eager to address by pointing to rapid expansion in the local tax base in recent years. Both entities have announced budgets for the upcoming fiscal year which cut their respective property tax rates by 2 cents.
“The bond referendum will ask citizens to decide whether they want to use this growth in our tax base to reinvest in the community, or do something else,” said County Manager John Crumpton, who is guiding the county Board of Commissioners through the process of investigating all of the financial ramifications and then placing the question on the ballot (see this story’s sidebar for information about a second bond question voters will likely be asked in 2020). “The financial plan will be presented to the commissioners in the fall, and then in January, the process of putting the question on the ballot will begin.”
Although the commissioners will be putting the question before voters, the county as an entity can’t get involved in persuasion efforts one way or the other. That’s where the steering committee established by Mann will come into play.
“The fall will be a big time,” Crumpton said. “These groups will really have to get out there in the public and generate support for it.”
Crumpton also said it would be a mistake to think of the complex proposal only as a vehicle for revenue-generating tournaments.
“There’s this misconception that these fields are just for travel ball. Sure, they want to be able to host tournaments, but they need practice fields and fields to play their regular seasons on,” he said. “And a facility like this doesn’t pay for itself. The county pays the debt service, and you try to break even on the operations. So it’s more of a service for the teams that play on it throughout the year, and then at tournament time it’s a boon to the retail sector.”
Still, everyone involved is confident that not only will voters in Lee County see the benefit of getting behind a large-scale sports complex, but also that doing so will help make Sanford a destination for others.
“Right now our hotels in town are full from Monday through Thursday because of people here on business, and they’re empty on the weekends,” Mann said.
“If we can create a situation where our hotels are full on weekends, that’s more occupancy tax revenue — tax that people who live here aren’t paying — and that means more festivals and attractions and investments in things like our downtown. That’s how you draw people in.”