Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion

BENNER: Westfield is pursuing its own amateur sports dream

October 5, 2013

I’ve used this quote before but it applies once more. It’s from former state Rep. Ned Lamkin of Indianapolis. Lamkin was one of the informal “city committee” members who struck upon the idea to use sports—in particular, amateur sports—to bolster both the city’s image and its economy.

Said Lamkin: “Dream no small dreams, and make no small plans.”

That pretty much sums up what’s going on in Westfield. Yes, Westfield.

The once (but not for long) sleepy little bedroom community in Hamilton County has decided to use sports—in particular, amateur sports—to bolster its image and economy. Sound familiar?

The man behind the plan is the irrepressibly upbeat Westfield mayor, Andy Cook. Not a career politician, but a businessman—his family has a trucking/logistics company—Cook was elected Westfield’s first mayor when it became a city five years ago. He was re-elected in 2011.

When it comes to the sports strategy, he doesn’t need a road map.

“We’re building on what Indianapolis did 30 years ago,” Cook said.

In response to a recent IBJ column I wrote extolling the virtues that sports can— emphasis on can—have on a community or region, Cook invited me to see what’s happening in Westfield.

His grand vision is called Grand Park Sports Campus and—on a sun-splashed, early-autumn day—the mayor gave me the Cook’s tour (pun intended) of an industrial park totally lacking in manufacturing plants, warehouses and smokestacks.

Instead, there were fields of dreams … baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields and multipurpose fields that could also host football, field hockey, rugby and lacrosse. There are 58 diamonds/fields in all. Some fields have artificial turf, some bluegrass and some Bermuda.

Large parking lots (4,400 spaces in all) access seven miles of pedestrian and bike paths that connect it all. Only one street traverses the property. The Monon Trail runs along the park’s eastern border.

On this day, about 200 workers were spread across the 2,200-acre expanse on Westfield’s west side, a couple of miles distant and across U.S. 31 from the small “downtown” along State Road 32 that most identify as Westfield. Annexation has significantly added to the city’s geographical area, accompanied by a housing boom.

What Westfield lacks, however, is a commercial tax base. That’s where Grand Park comes in. In return for Westfield’s $45 million investment—funded via a bond issue—Cook envisions the park as a tax-revenue-generating regional and national drawing card for a portion of the multitude of youth tournaments and competitions that take place.

A local pundit, my friend Pete “The Planner” Dunn recently blogged about parents overspending on travel sports for their kids (I responded to Pete that I’d rather see kids out on the playing fields than sitting in a room playing video games). Nonetheless, youth-sports travel leagues and tournaments aren’t going away.

“The family travel sports business is huge,” Cook said. “The studies show each [participant] brings 3.5 people with him or her, and that they spend an average of $127 a day, stay 3.9 days, and that it adds up to a $7.5 billion industry.”

Cook’s gambit: Build a state-of-the-art complex and trust they will come—participants, coaches and families first, followed by hotels, restaurants, entertainment and shopping. A contiguous 400 acres already is zoned for the supporting retail.

According to Cook, the facilities at Grand Park, most of which open next spring, are almost completely booked for 2014. Down the road, plans call for indoor facilities to house soccer and baseball/softball through the winter months.

Westfield is responsible only for building the park; it isn’t doing the booking. That falls to its two independent partners, the Indiana Bulls amateur baseball team and the Indiana Youth Soccer Association, who reap the rental revenue. Westfield retains naming, vending and concession rights. Pepsi, for example, just dropped $2 million for pouring rights.

Cook said Grand Park isn’t designed to compete with its omnipotent neighbor to the south, but to complement it. Indiana Sports Corp. President Allison Melangton is among those who have toured the property.

Sure, the project comes with risk—$45 million worth of risk. But the payoff could be huge, not just for Westfield, but for central Indiana.

“For the city, it’s designed to be a break-even venture,” Cook said. “But I know you’ve heard that before.”

I also once heard from some folks in Indy who thought sports could be a lure for economic and brand development. Hey, make some plans and dream some dreams. It might all work out.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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