Little Rock considers indoor sports venue

March 17, 2015

Summary: Convergence Design was part of a team led by Crossroads Consulting Services that is advising the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau on the feasibility of an indoor sports venue to attract tournament teams from out of state. The team's preliminary report was delivered March 16 to the LRCVB's Board of Commissioners.

LR venue with roof for sports is pitched

This article was published March 17, 2015 at 3:24 a.m.

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Little Rock's advertising and promotion arm is considering building a large, indoor-sports center with at least eight multipurpose basketball courts to attract more out-of-town visitors and better compete in the indoor-sports tournament market.

There is a market demand for such a facility in the region, and it would generate more than $550,000 in sales tax revenue for the city each year, a consultant with Tampa, Fla.-based Crossroads Consulting Services told the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission on Monday.

The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau contracted with the firm to study the feasibility of building a sports facility. It would at minimum cost $30 million to build and equip and would likely break even on its operating costs, the Crossroads Consulting report said.

Mayor Mark Stodola, who is a member of the commission, had the most probing questions for the consultants and said after the meeting that while some of the findings concerned him, he still needs to read the full 91-page report before forming an opinion.

"It sounds like there's always a demand for something like this. ... The best I heard was that it would probably break even or get close to that. That concerns me from an operational standpoint," Stodola said. "And then, of course, there's always the issue of the capital [funding.] I think finding partners is really the route if it's going to go forward. ... There's no money lying on the ground anywhere."

There's no timeline in place for making a decision on whether to pursue the project.

"What's next is to determine if there's community support and figure out if there is a way to fund it," said Gretchen Hall, president and chief executive officer of the visitors bureau, which is governed by the commission.

Hall will set up meetings with city leaders and the bureau's hotel-industry partners to gauge support.

Crossroads Consulting's analysis said that sports-related activity accounted for 43 percent of Little Rock's meeting and convention sales in 2013, but that most of the city's tournaments have been for outdoor sports such as baseball, softball, soccer and football.

An indoor venue would mostly host basketball, volleyball and tae kwon do tournaments, but it could also cater to wrestling, boxing, cheerleading, dance, table tennis and other sports.

Monday's presentation offered two options: a moderate-quality, 100,000-square-f00t facility with eight basketball courts, which would equal 16 volleyball courts, and cost about $30 million; a 125,000-square-foot venue costing about $39 million would have nine basketball courts, or 18 volleyball courts, and accommodate championship events with additional seating and parking.

"There really is a strong potential market demand for this type of facility," consultant Susan Sieger told the commission. "What's interesting is that the breadth of events is quite diverse both in terms of sports, ages and levels of play. This isn't meant to be basketball or volleyball only. The point is to try to be as diverse as possible."

Little Rock is going to have to develop some type of expanded indoor facility if it wants to keep the Real Deal in the Rock tournament, the tournament's founder and executive director Bill Ingram said.

Real Deal in the Rock is considered the No. 1 amateur basketball tournament in the nation, Ingram said. It's attracted as many as 564 teams but averages about 300. Players range from 9 to 17 years old.

"At some point the city is going to have to [develop a larger facility.] If they don't, we are going to have to do something different. It's harder and harder every year for us to not have a main facility. We are using [Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids' athletic center] right now ... and three courts is just not big enough. We need at least eight to 10. This is what all the other major tournaments in the country have gone to. It makes it easier on teams. And if it's not convenient for the teams, then we are going to end up losing them," Ingram said after Monday's meeting.

Construction of a large, indoor-sports venue would have a substantial economic impact on Little Rock and the state, the report said.

If 70 percent of tournament attendees stay overnight in Little Rock, it would generate between 36,500 to 44,400 hotel room bookings a year.

The visitors' spending at hotels, restaurants and elsewhere would generate between $551,000 to $654,000 in tax revenue for Little Rock and about $1.8 million to $2.1 million for the state, the report said. The overall annual economic benefit to Little Rock from that additional spending and other factors is estimated at between $10.3 million to $12.2 million. For the state, the economic benefit was put at between $11.4 million to $13.5 million.

Estimates were based on a venue with at least 2,500 and up to 4,000 retractable seats, adequate on-site parking, restrooms, concessions, Wi-Fi, a retail shop, registration room, locker rooms and lounges, equipment storage, banquet space, a warm-up area, a charging station, scoreboards on each court and a public-address system.

Tournament attendees typically travel up to 250 miles for a weekend event. There are about 12 venues that could accommodate indoor tournaments in a 250-mile radius of Little Rock, but if the proposed facility were constructed, it would be in the top four in quality, Sieger said.

The main reason the Convention and Visitors Bureau would want to construct a large facility is not to address the city's parks and recreation needs but to attract out-of-town visitors to fill hotel rooms and increase economic spending and tax revenue, Sieger said.

Little Rock's indoor, multisport facilities are now limited to the Statehouse Convention Center and the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Some of the events that now book at those venues would move to the indoor facility if it were built, but that would free up the two older sites and allow them to better cater to what they were built for -- for example, conferences in the convention center's case.

Crossroads Consultant Services had a 42 percent response rate to a survey it conducted as part of the study, ultimately getting responses from 52 people that represent 40 different organizations.

In the survey, 96 percent of the respondents said they would definitely or were likely to host an event at the proposed multisport facility.

The consultants said that early in the week when competitions are not being held, the center could host clinics and training events.

Eight potential sites were identified, though some were not deemed feasible. The four sites that scored highest in the the consultants' view were Western Hills Park and a site south of UALR's new track and soccer complex, both in southwest Little Rock; War Memorial Park in the center of the city; and Murray Park, located near the Arkansas River.

Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show, attended Monday's meeting. The State Fairgrounds is home to the Barton Coliseum -- a multipurpose arena with one court that can seat about 10,000 for a basketball game.

"I think if the money works, if they can pay for a new facility and it at least breaks even, then I think it'd be a good addition," Shoptaw said.

Metro on 03/17/2015

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