Communities hope for youth sports complexes as economic boost

Communities hope for youth sports complexes as economic boost

Community sports complexes, some costing in the tens of millions of dollars, are popping up all over the country, including right here in southern Wisconsin.

In recent years, multimillion-dollar buildings have been proposed in many communities, and in some cases, they’ve been built. One such place is the GRB Academy near DeForest. The 52,000-square-foot facility, which opened earlier this year, is a cathedral of baseball and softball training.

Owner Greg Reinhard started his business a few years ago in a smaller space on Madison’s east side, and finally outgrew the facility. He sees more indoor opportunities in Wisconsin in the wintertime, which has been the catalyst for his business growth.

“The sport is growing because of more opportunities indoors,” said Reinhard, a former University of Wisconsin-Whitewater national champion baseball player, who also spent time professionally with the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays organizations. “The sport is growing because of more opportunities indoors.”

GRB used private donations, and some tax incremental financing, to build the complex. The building features 14 batting cages, a 30-foot ceiling and a major-league-size infield. Local baseball and softball teams can rent the space for their practices as the season gets underway. Even Gaelic football teams take advantage of the warm, dry confines on a rental basis. Reinhard has built a business plan that works.

In recent years, sports complexes have popped up all over the Midwest, but getting them built, whether using private or public funding, can be a challenge.

The Xcel Sports Complex in Jefferson was supposed to cater to athletes of all ages, but could have been a regional destination for athletes and their families, with its location not far from the interstate, halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.

Earlier this month, however, a Dane County judge foreclosed on the property, after it sat untouched by construction crews since last spring. The massive, boarded-up future warehouse of sport has kept Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann hopeful that the property soon finds a group interested in finishing the job.

“It’s a great location for it here, and we’re very health-conscious here. We like to promote sports, especially youth sports,” Oppermann said.

The multimillion-dollar facility was to be the anchor of a tax incremental financing (TIF) district in Jefferson, but Oppermann said the halted project took minimal city investment and infrastructure improvements to the district, making it an extremely viable project for potential buyers.

“It would be a definite asset to the community,” Oppermann said.

In Fitchburg last year, an Indiana company proposed a $77 million sports and entertainment project near Highway 14 and Lacy Road. The project would have been capable of hosting 31 different sports, on a variety of court surfaces and ice. The city of Fitchburg sat on a $25 million TIF request by the company, and a year later, the project appears to be at least stalled.

In 2014, a nonprofit group stepped forward with a $15.6 million sports complex proposal in Sun Prairie. Three years later, that project appears dead.

Other facilities, such as the $25 million UW Health Sports Factory, which opened last summer in Rockford, did come to fruition, and had many weekends this past winter when it was packed with traveling basketball families — all of them looking for places to eat, sleep, drink and be entertained.

The Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Madison Sports Commission talk to companies and developers who are looking to build such massive cathedrals of sports. They try to give them the best information available and, on occasion, try to connect communities with common goals for the possibility of sharing such complexes.

“Youth sports in general are really a big draw. Families travel for youth sports,” said GMCVB Executive Vice President Diane Morgenthaler. “You might have a couple family members — you’ve got a sibling that needs to be entertained, you have restaurants that want to feed them, hotels that want to house them, so it’s big business for communities and I think it’s business that’s recession-proof as well.”

While businesses may cut back if they face hard times, families seldom cut their kids off from their favorite sports when budgets get tight. In fact, Morgenthaler said those sports travel weekends may even replace the annual summer vacation, meaning more spending in local communities that host such events.

Reinhard hopes to work with the soon-to-be-built Village of DeForest sports complex to host tournaments in the future. He sees his GRB Academy as the perfect complement to the DeForest complex, which will break ground this year. While he recently brought in 250 families for a single weekend scouting showcase, tournaments hosted by GRB at the new complex could have an even bigger economic impact for the community.

Reinhard now knows just how hard it is to get such a complex up and running, and knows it can be a risky business if those involved don’t see the entire picture.

“I think some people take a flyer thinking they can make an indoor work, and that’s a really dangerous situation for everyone, from the banker to the person that wants to open it,” Reinhard said.

At the end of the day, combining two of his passions, business and baseball, makes his new facility the culmination of a dream and a lot of hard work.

“Obviously you build a building like this, there has to be some economic movement for the building to stay open, so you can pay your employees, so there’s a side to that, but one of the best sides is probably the success of the kids and them moving on,” Reinhard said.