TAMPA — For more than a decade, plans to build a massive sports complex in east Hillsborough County capable of luring large youth athletic tournaments and the millions of tourism dollars that come with them have slowly inched along.
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners gave the project a big push forward, selecting the companies that will be tasked with building and designing the fields and facilities.
In their winning bid, Nelson Construction Co. and Stantec pitched a $12.9 million complex with 16 soccer fields — four synthetic and 12 natural grass — equipped with lighting, the capacity to park 1,200 cars, space for vendors and food trucks, concessions and locker rooms.
The proposed facility would be flexible enough so fields could be reconfigured to host rugby, football, cricket and even quidditch, the sport of wizards in the Harry Potter series that muggles now play too (without the flying).
"That design concept and vision really stood out for everyone as something that would be iconic and unique," said Josh Bellotti, director of facilities for the county.
The approved site for the complex is 65 acres of county-owned land between U.S. 301 and Falkenburg Road, just south of Broadway Avenue. It was chosen for its proximity to major thoroughfares and existing development.
The vision of a year-round sports complex that could tap into the booming economy of youth athletics was first laid out by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman in 2005.
However, commissioners eventually balked at his lofty proposal for a $40 million amateur sports park, including a 22,000-seat stadium, on 425 acres near Plant City.
Commissioner Ken Hagan picked up the mantle, and three years ago he won $15 million in the capital improvement program for a scaled-back complex that would focus on regional youth sports tournaments.
Millions of kids participate in sports, and youth athletics drives $7 billion a year in economic activity across the country, according to a 2013 study from Sports Facilities Advisory, a consulting company based in Clearwater. There are traveling youth teams for every sport, and landing just one event can mean hundreds of room nights at hotels and thousands of tourists spending money at restaurants and local entertainment.
As it is, there are hundreds of communities hoping to tap into it this lucrative market. Some are more successful than others.
Hillsborough County has lost tournaments in recent years to cities that have built more modern and larger facilities, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. Already the commission is in conversations with event organizers to bring those events back and bring in new ones.
Other communities have built large facilities hoping to spur development, but it doesn't always pan out. The planned location for the Hillsborough complex is already near hotels and other amenities, and is between Tampa and Brandon. That should give it an advantage, Higgins said.
A feasibility study from Sports Facilities Advisory estimated that the Hillsborough youth sports complex would generate an economic impact of $7.3 million in year one and $25 million and 43,800 hotel nights in its fifth year.
"We feel it's positioned real well for a competitive landscape," Higgins said. "We think it's really attractive and will be a great sports tourism producer for us."
Potential economic benefits aside, the county's commitment to such an expensive project comes at a time when it is rethinking how to pay for transportation needs. Several commissioners have promised to scrutinize the list of planned capital projects for opportunities to shift more money to roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersection improvements.
One of those commissioners, Sandy Murman, said she considered reprioritizing the money earmarked for the youth sports complex for transportation. But she ultimately sided against doing so.
"The train kind of left the station on that item," she said, and removing it at this point "would be an uphill battle."
To that point, Hillsborough County Deputy Administrator Greg Horwedel said considerable staff time and resources have already been spent on planning for this project.
"From my perspective, this is something that is very far along and I think we should finish the project," he said, though he added that it's ultimately the board's decision.
Commissioners will have at least one more opportunity to review the project when they approve the final design.
Now comes the part where the county staff will have to pressure the build and design team to follow through on its bid at the cost proposed. At the top of the list is ensuring the Nelson/Stantec team fulfills its plans for a special "championship field" within the complex with shaded seating.
Hagan urged staff to hold the designers' "feet to the fire" because that could be a real draw for event organizers.
"That's what really distinguished this team from the others," he said. "So we want to make sure they deliver what was promised."
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com. Follow @scontorno.