Local Government and Hamilton County and Proposals and Westfield and Development/Redevelopment and Regional News and Public-Private Partnership and Real Estate & Retail

Westfield mayor hopes $60M stadium project will transform city

April 27, 2009
He went back and forth, but ultimately the mayor of Westfield decided to go with his gut.

Mayor Andy Cook, the first to hold that title in the fast-growing Hamilton County suburb, settled on "Family Sports Capital of America." He and his advisers had weighed "Family Sports Capital of the Midwest," but eventually opted to aim higher.

They're trying to give the bedroom community an identity and a launching pad for new private development. But the effort involves much more than a slogan: Cook, 57, is proposing a $60 million youth sports complex with a 4,000-seat multipurpose outdoor stadium, indoor sports facilities and fields for baseball, soccer, softball and lacrosse.

The city hopes to attract an unaffiliated minor-league baseball team to play in the $15 million stadium, and also hopes to lure the YMCA as a major tenant of the complex.

In other words, Cook is going all in for youth sports. He's been making the pitch to anyone who will listen around Westfield and at the Statehouse, where he's lobbying for a tax-increment-financing district to help the city pay for the project.

He carries the feasibility study, maps and details of his vision in a yellow JanSport backpack. Cook is mostly colorblind but can see yellow—his Jeep also is yellow, and he's planning a Yellow Tie Ball in June to raise money for community projects.

"The whole purpose is to get this dream on the table," said Cook, who coached his three now-grown children in sports programs offered by the Carmel Dad's Club. He and his wife, Barbara, have seven grandchildren, some of whom compete in Westfield sports.

Another potential benefit for the 200-acre sports complex is that it could help the city spread the tax burden to something other than residential development, Cook said. Westfield schools are well-respected but pricey to maintain without much of a commercial tax base.

The sports component would anchor a 1,500-acre development called Symphony along Towne Road between 146th and 161st streets. The family sports traffic, the thinking goes, would drive interest in private development of retail, restaurants and hotels at the project by locally based Estridge Co.

All told, the sports component and commercial development to support it would require a public and private investment of $1.5 billion, Cook said.

"If anybody can make it happen, it will be him," said Brenda Myers, executive director of the Hamilton County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The county already has attracted premier youth sports events-including the national championship for AAU Division II 11 and under girls' basketball this June and the Continental Athletic Baseball Association World Series in July.

Maxed out

But there isn't much room for growth since most high school facilities in the county are booked year-round, and the private local clubs, including Westfield Youth Sports Inc. and Westfield Youth Soccer Association, also are at capacity.

More than 45,000 people visited Hamilton County in 2007 for sports events, spending nearly $7 million, the Visitors Bureau said. The new facilities could increase that figure many times over.

If the Westfield complex gets off the ground, it could allow the county to bid on larger events like the Little League World Series.

"Westfield is one of the last larger communities to emerge in Hamilton County that's looking for an identity," Myers said. "You have a visionary leader who's listening to his community and visitors bureau talking about a need for more facilities. There's a synergy here."

The city is working with the Visitors Bureau to create a Family Sports Advisory Commission to coordinate the development.

The mayor's pricey sports proposal comes at the same time he's pushing for $50 million in public money to develop a so-called Grand Junction of trails at the center of a new downtown Westfield.

He said that project will generate $675 million in private investments. The city already has spent more than $200,000 developing those plans.

Dangerous strategy?

Not everyone is convinced the mayor is on the right track. Russell Cameron, a local business owner who serves on the city's advisory planning commission, fears the estimate for $675 million in private development at Grand Junction is "grossly overstated" and the $50 million public cost for infrastructure is "grossly understated."

"I'm not sure I support it, because I don't see a financial plan for how much incentives would be required for what level of return," Cameron said. "How much money are we talking about? How much margin for error is built into the construction of infrastructure and private development? And what really is the return on investment?"

He sees Westfield's push into public-private partnerships as a dangerous "shell game" in which the city essentially is saying, "Trust us," while putting private developers in control of public money. He has the same concerns about the sports proposal.

"Any time I've needed a business loan, the bank needs to see a business plan. It's not just, 'If we build it, they will come,'" he said. "These are hard numbers. I don't see why the government can't provide us with the same set of tools."

Cameron and his wife, Mollianne, own three properties along Union Street in Westfield, where Mollianne operates Stitches n Scones and Crafty Capers. They are suing the city for approving variances without a public hearing for an event-business nearby that could soak up most of the neighborhood's parking spaces.

Cook says his mission is not to outdo Noblesville or Carmel, but to enhance the county as a whole. He meets often with the mayors of those towns to get ideas.

"We see Hamilton County developing into a series of medium-size cities, each with a unique identity," said Cook, who served on the Westfield city council for a year before taking over as its first mayor.

Cook admitted his plans for the sports complex are ambitious, particularly in such a rough economy, and he offered no timetable for the project to get under way. He said the city won't build anything until it wins commitments from private developers, but vowed Westfield will be ready to move fast when the economy turns.

He would not say much about the centerpiece of the plans, the 4,000-seat stadium, except that it would host everything from concerts to high school graduations. But the city is hoping to land a permanent tenant: a minor-league baseball team.

The city wouldn't be able to get a team affiliated with a Major League club because of Westfield's proximity to Indianapolis' Victory Field and the minor-league Indians, but it could land an unaffiliated team.

No word on potential mascots, but one thing's for sure: The team's color will be yellow.
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