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Officials pitch ballfields as tourism booster

MADEIRA BEACH — Building new ballfields and a recreation center at a cost of about $3 million may be controversial among many residents, but the project would revitalize the city's economy, according to officials.

Sports tourism secured by the Clearwater-St. Petersburg Sports Commission generated $23 million in economic impact in Pinellas County last year, according to director Kevin Smith, as he urged city officials last week to build the complex.

The commission is part of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and is the county's official sports marketing and management organization.

The groups's mandate is to promote professional, collegiate, youth and amateur team training and tournaments on a state, regional, national and even international level at sports facilities throughout the county.

"We are very, very short on quality assets to host tournaments," Smith told the City Commission. "We need quality inventory, ballfields and gymnasiums."

Smith, who also is the incoming chairman of the National Association of Sports Commissions, said his staff is in Europe promoting county and municipal softball facilities to German, Danish, Swedish and Italian teams and organizations.

"We find events and bring them back to Pinellas County," Smith said. "We insist that organizations stay in the county so it means money for hotels and restaurants."

He described Pinellas as a "first-class, tier-one destination" for hosting major worldwide sporting events.

Among those events are the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg; the ABA BMX Gator Nationals that attracts more than 800 riders from over 20 countries to the Oldsmar BMX Park; and the three-week long USF Series softball collegiate tournament in Clearwater.

Other cities that have benefited from sports events recruited by Smith's office include Dunedin, Largo, Safety Harbor, Pinellas Park and St. Pete Beach.

Most recently, Largo was awarded the Junior Diving National Championships to be held in 2014, Smith said.

His organization is currently bidding on events that would be precursors to the 2016 Olympics, and others as far into the future as 2020.

He praised the Madeira Beach officials' vision for considering rebuilding its recreational complex and said he could fill it with tournaments and sports events year-round.

The current ballfields, which many residents maintain are good enough, are actually not adequate for attracting sports tourism, he said.

"You do have an asset but to be perfectly honest with you, it is not a usable asset. It doesn't meet the standards we need to have."

If the commission decides to move ahead with the recreation complex portion of its municipal rebuilding project, Smith said he has expert consultants that could advise the city on how the ballfields should be designed.

City Manager Shane Crawford said he hoped the commission would cite Smith's sports tourism statistics and predictions when talking with residents about the proposed rebuilding of the city hall, fire station, and recreational complex.

A group of residents already are promoting a citywide referendum on the recreation portion of the project, which they oppose. The group prefers that the city spend the money on streets and drainage first.

A final decision by the commission on the scope of the municipal project, which could cost $10 million or more, is expected within the next few months.

Crawford defended the Phase 2 recreational complex redevelopment, calling it a no-brainer that would generate revenue for both the city and its businesses.

"We can make money doing this and there will be an economic impact on the city,'' Crawford said. "Your hotels will be full."

Officials pitch ballfields as tourism booster 07/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 5:10pm]
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