July 23, 2018

Developers see opportunity with increasing demand for youth-sports facilities

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
The Mizuno New England Winterfest volleyball tourney at the Convention Center creates about $2 million in revenue for the region.
Renderings | Contributed
(Left) A rendering of turf fields that have been proposed as a part of Andrew Borgia’s Windsor Locks sports complex. (Right) A schematic showing David Rocha’s $3 million Fastpitch Nation Park being planned for Day Hill Road in Windsor.
H. Scott Phelps, President, Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau (CTCSB)
J. Christopher Kervick, First Selectman, Windsor Locks

Youth sports in the United States has blossomed into a $15.5 billion industry, with parents often treating out-of-state tournaments as a family vacation.

While industry insiders say Connecticut's youth sports market is competitive when it comes to attracting major competitions, they concede there are gaps to be filled, and developers are starting to take notice.

Several projects are being considered that could pump millions of dollars into the state economy and better position Connecticut to attract larger, more high-profile sporting events.

Plans were recently unveiled for a $200 million sports complex in Windsor Locks that aims to be a premier facility for top youth athletes from around the country, particularly for Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball.

Even though the project faces uncertainty — following revelations of an active lawsuit against the developer, Andrew Borgia, in New York — youth basketball organizers say that a multi-court facility with the right amenities could be a major draw.

Meanwhile, just over the border in Windsor, a longtime fastpitch softball coach and league official has, with little fanfare, won local approvals to build 11 fastpitch fields on a 20-plus-acre parcel on Day Hill Road, near Amazon's new distribution facility.

Fastpitch Nation Park would be the largest of its kind in New England and aim to attract additional tournaments to an already healthy portfolio, according to the developer David Rocha, who owns an indoor athletics facility in Bloomfield and who is fastpitch director for the U.S. Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) for Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

"The whole business of travel sports has exploded," Rocha said.

Another area sports facility, Hartford's Dillon Stadium, will draw more out-of-state activity after renovations are complete and United Soccer League's newly named Hartford Athletic begins play in 2019.

Connecticut already attracts sporting events at several facilities, including the Convention Center in Hartford, which has hosted major youth volleyball tournaments. A weeklong national girls' fastpitch softball tournament, directed by Rocha, is expected to bring more than $2.1 million to the Greater Hartford economy when competition kicks off July 23 in East Hartford and Southington.

While Connecticut doesn't have the massive sports complexes that are more common in other parts of the country, the state benefits from its geographic position and could build on that, said Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau (CTCSB) President H. Scott Phelps, whose organization helps market dozens of venues around the state.

"Connecticut has 23.5 million people within a two-hour drive," Phelps said.

Building demand

Fastpitch Nation Park, which Rocha said represents a $3 million investment, could be considered the antithesis of "build it and they will come."

USSSA has grown into the largest fastpitch organization in New England, and demand for the sport and access to softball fields is there, he said.

The association is already running about 40 tournaments a year in Connecticut, which is sorely lacking in fastpitch-sized fields.

Assuming his project becomes a reality (he's still waiting on final word from his private lenders and there's no state money involved), Rocha anticipates many existing competitions, as well as new ones, moving to the Windsor facility, including the addition of a second national tournament.

On an average weekend, as many as 50 teams could be involved in a tournament. The matchups include teams from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Rocha expects the geographic reach to grow. Hosting college teams is also a possibility.

"Absolutely, we're going to draw from much further away," he said.

Rocha said his project was born out of a dearth of fastpitch fields in the state. What does exist is often town-owned or requires fence modifications to accommodate the smaller fastpitch format, and Rocha has noticed that more towns in recent years have stopped renting to tournaments like his.

"You never know from year to year whether the fields you used last year are available to use this year," he said.

Once financing is in order, which Rocha hopes will happen by next month, construction on the outdoor fields would start immediately, with a projected opening date of spring 2019.

Looking for hoops space

Youth basketball organizers say a multi-court, amenity-laden facility could make a major difference in Connecticut.

That's why officials, including Tony Duarte, lieutenant governor for AAU sports in Connecticut and national commissioner for AAU boys basketball, were excited by the prospects of the proposed multi-sport complex in Windsor Locks, which included plans for 16 basketball courts.

The project, however, faces uncertainty. Windsor Locks First Selectman J. Christopher Kervick halted development talks suddenly July 16 when he learned about an ongoing civil suit in New York against the developer. But Kervick said he's still willing to hear Borgia's side of the situation.

"I would have preferred [Borgia] had disclosed this to us in advance," Kervick said of the suit filed by four prior investors in a New York sports-related project. "If we get a good explainer, we can move past it."

Regardless, Duarte said the proposed project is precisely the type of development that could help bring more events and dollars into the state, as well as increased competition in several areas.

"The biggest difficulty to hosting big tournaments is finding a place with multiple courts, and then the cost," Duarte said.

Connecticut's annual AAU boys and girls basketball tournaments draw more than 140 teams from around the state that play at several different high schools in April or May of each year.

But Connecticut has not drawn an AAU "super regional" hoops tournament — which would attract teams from neighboring states — for at least three years, Duarte said.

Duarte, who is not involved with the Windsor Locks project, said a facility like the one proposed could also draw more NCAA-sanctioned events, allowing college recruiters to get a look at promising high school athletes.

Duarte, a longtime coach and youth sports official, last week was traveling to Greensboro, N.C., for a national AAU championship at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, which he said was expecting more than 100 teams of seventh grade or under-13 boys, mostly from out of state.

The tournament will spur plenty of spending on hotel rooms, restaurants and other items in Greensboro, he said.

A major reason the event is in that city is because it offers 10 courts in one location, Duarte said.

You won't find that anywhere in Connecticut, or much of New England.

Borgia's "All Sports Village" aims to change that.

He and his company JABS Sports Management this month unveiled renderings of a complex to be built on a 76-acre tobacco farm, with 6,000-seat indoor and outdoor arenas, room for 16 basketball courts or 32 volleyball courts, as well as eight synthetic turf fields for lacrosse, flag football, softball and field hockey, as well as 70,000 square feet of convention and meeting space, two hotels, athlete dormitories and retail space.

Borgia said the town overreacted when it decided to suspend project talks. His lawyer called the lawsuit against him "frivolous."

Borgia said he hopes to mend his relationship with the town.

Wishes, needs and competition

Whatever happens with the Windsor Locks project, the proposal gave Connecticut officials reason to opine about Connecticut's sports and convention market, what it offers, and what it might need to get bigger.

Besides basketball, a development with multiple ice rinks, particularly if they had several thousand seats, could be a draw for bigger hockey or synchronized skating tournaments.

"When it comes to sports facilities, you can ask any hockey parent and there will always be a demand for more ice time," said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees the XL Center, the Connecticut Convention Center and other venues. "Whether it pays or not is the $250 million question," he added, referring to the projected price tag of a potential XL Center overhaul.

Robert Murdock, CTCSB's director of sports marketing, said having multiple turf fields in one location could also be a game-changer.

While a number of schools and colleges have fields, availability is often limited by student athletics.

"All of the sudden, you have these fields that are open," Murdock said. "It's just a lot more access."

"We have limited big facilities that are open for events," he added.

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