Both sides of the political aisle are howling that the $6 million transforming Post Road Community Park into the Indianapolis World Sports Park could be better spent. Yet a powerful group of people and organizations says the 48-acre park championed by Mayor Greg Ballard is already paying off and will score even bigger dividends in the future.
A flurry of positive press in places like India, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean nations—plus an agreement with the USA Cricket Association to host the men’s national championship here in 2014, 2015 and 2016—show the World Sports Park is a good investment, city officials said. Next year’s USACA National Championships will be Aug. 21-24.
The Indiana Sports Corp. has agreed to help organize the event, including sanctioning and other logistical issues, but has not yet been asked to pitch in money.
Sports Corp. CEO Allison Melangton has come out in strong support of the venue and the initiative to bring new sporting events to the facility.
“This is a great opportunity for us to test a new market and appeal to a new audience,” Melangton said. “We know we’re stepping into a sport with a very strong world following.”
ISC is in the midst of organizing its troops for the cricket nationals; Melangton estimates 300 volunteers might be needed also. She doesn’t think recruiting will be a problem.
City officials said they’re in the process of identifying potential sponsors for the venue and for USACA’s national championships; Melangton predicted “significant interest.”
While city officials have often touted the global exposure the venue is bringing to Indianapolis, Leonard Hoops, CEO of Visit Indy, the city’s tourism marketing arm, said that’s merely “icing on the cake.”
“The presentation that I heard from the mayor emphasized that this is an amenity for our residents and an amenity for the diversity of our residents,” Hoops said. “The mayor has continually said this, but no one seems to want to listen.”
Hoops, who came to Visit Indy from San Francisco in early 2011, said he supports the project because it’s an investment in more green space, and it’s a non-traditional use of space.
“It surprises me that we clamor as residents [to have] more green spaces and parks, [yet] we’ve been so aggressive as a community to attack this one,” Hoops said. He called criticism of the park “insulting to the folks in the community who do like those sports.”
It’s not yet clear, Hoops said, what impact the local hospitality industry will realize from the national cricket championships or other events at the World Sports Park, which is designed to have temporary seating for up to 10,000.
The five multipurpose fields are designed for soccer, lacrosse, hurling, rugby, Australian rules football and Gaelic football, in addition to cricket.
“I don’t know how big the cricket niche is. Or niches for other sports that can be held there,” Hoops said. “But remember, GenCon [gaming convention] started as a small, little thing in Geneva, Wis. Today, it’s driving 45,000 people to Indianapolis each year. That took decades to build.”
Interest in the project isn’t coming just from foreign lands, said Brian Gildea, executive director of Develop Indy, a unit of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.
“Companies like Eli Lilly, Roche and Dow AgroSciences have been very supportive of this project,” Gildea said. “They see this as a key amenity that will help them to retain and attract the best employees from all over the world.
“Increasing Indianapolis’ international flavor takes a variety of things and this is an amenity that broadens our international appeal,” Gildea added.
The World Sports Park might not seem as essential as basic infrastructure, Gildea said, but such an amenity “is extremely important to the business community.”
“The last thing a company wants is to be in an area where their employees don’t want to be or where they can’t attract employees,” he said.
Questions fuel skepticism
But plenty of questions about the Indianapolis World Sports Park remain unanswered, which only fuels skepticism.
For instance, city officials and USACA say they don’t yet have estimates on how many people will attend next year’s national championships. Nor do they have an economic impact estimate.
“This is an event we hope to grow. We believe the economic impact over time will be worth the investment,” said Marc Lotter, spokesman for Ballard. “We think this event will bring in new people to the city, and any time you bring in new people to experience our city, that’s a good thing.”
Milt Thompson, a local attorney and sports marketer, understands the uncertainty about the venue’s return on investment.
“There are still important questions to answer about who will program and operate this facility and how much that will cost city taxpayers,” said Thompson, a member of the city’s Capital Improvement Board and a former ISC board member.
The fields will use a high-end turf, and an irrigation system might be needed to accommodate regional, national and international events, as well as local play.
The city’s Department of Public Works is finalizing maintenance estimates. City officials said maintenance costs for high-end turf at Post Road Community Park have been about $30,000 annually, but they acknowledge it will likely cost more than that to maintain turf at the World Sports Park.
City officials said many uncertainties will be resolved in the coming weeks as they finish the operation model. It’s likely, sources said, the city will seek an outside facility manager, much the same way Marian University operates and maintains Major Taylor Velodrome. The city’s agreement with Marian is designed to increase programming at the city-owned bicycle track and in time actually bring in revenue for the university and the city through a revenue-sharing agreement.
Thompson, who has been involved in the city’s sports movement since he was general counsel and organizer for the 1987 Pan Am Games, said he’s torn over the project.
“I understand why it’s being criticized, and I understand why it’s being built,” he said. “I see the value in building amenities that are attractive to a broad range of people. But I am skeptical about the sustainability of these facilities.”
Ultimately, Thompson said, the market should drive such developments, not the mayor nor the parks department.
“If you let the market drive it, that’s what brings economic development and economic impact,” he said. “That’s a better model than, build it and they will come.”
But Thompson later countered his own argument, noting that some sports at the Pan Am Games—such as rowing, team handball and equestrian—were never seen here before, “yet became very popular with the locals.”
ISC’s Melangton said Indianapolis hosted its first major lacrosse event this year: two NCAA quarterfinal games. She said the sport “has growing promise” locally.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve built or modified venues for non-traditional sports,” Thompson said. “And it does play into our overall brand as a sports capital.”
While Thompson said “$6 million isn’t over the top” for a parks department development, critics said that expenditure on something deemed to be desired by a minority of local residents comes at a time many residents are begging for neighborhood infrastructure improvements.
At a cost of $125,000 per lane mile, the city could have repaved another 48 miles of road with the money spent on the World Sports Park, critics of Ballard’s plan pointed out.
“If the mayor seems to think he has $6 million of fluff money that he can spend on a cricket field, he needs to refocus his priorities and spend it where the citizens need it, and that is in the sidewalk infrastructure,” said Democratic Councilor Angela Mansfield.
Money for the sports park is coming from the Rebuild Indy fund. Rebuild Indy is the mayor’s initiative to fix sidewalks, roads and bridges across the city with proceeds from the sale of the water company to Citizens Gas. That sale netted the city almost $400 million. Of that, only about $20 million remains.•