When it comes to local youth soccer, football and other long-field sports, participating in major tournaments often means hitting the road to Phoenix and other cities across the West with larger facilities.
That also means that millions of dollars worth of spending — and the tax receipts it brings — happens beyond county lines.
Those lost revenues are a major reason why Pima County officials are proposing 12 new athletic fields on 167 acres of county-owned land south of Interstate 10 and the Kino Sports Complex. Officials describe it as the first phase of what could be a more substantial project, renderings of which show 20 fields, a stadium, a splash pad and playground, concession stands and space for private facilities like stores, hotels and restaurants.
“Rather than our families constantly having to travel north to Phoenix to compete, many more matches can now be played in Tucson where our friends up north will travel here, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, buy our gas and shop in our stores,” Tucson Soccer Academy and Pima County Junior Soccer League President Ted Schmidt said of the proposal.
With 11 fields, Rillito Park is the largest long-field complex in the county, and prospects for expansion there to the 18 fields officials say is necessary to support major tournaments are poor.
Including costs for 2,588 parking spots, lighting for the fields, two restroom facilities, an access road and other improvements, the estimated price tag for the Kino proposal is $18.6 million, according to a recent memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The county purchased the property for $8.75 million in 2014.
A 2015 bond package included $25 million to start on improvements estimated at $55 million, but voters shot down the sports and recreation proposition by a 16-point margin.
The cost does not include estimates for an underpass that would take pedestrians, cyclists and drivers under I-10 to Forgeus Avenue and the rest of the Kino Sports Complex. Huckelberry said his guess was “a couple million dollars” for that project.
Schmidt said youth sports teams are contending with a serious shortage of playing fields locally. He also said he hopes county officials work with the soccer academy and others to ensure appropriate designs and to “avoid mistakes made in the past at our local parks, which have rendered many existing fields unsuitable for state and regional competition.”
There are 62 soccer fields in Pima County, though local team officials say there is enough demand for 80 more, according to a May memo written by Nanette Slusser, assistant county administrator for public works. Access to the proposed fields would be comparable to other county parks, where small fees are charged to leagues for practice. Huckelberry said that during the summer and other low periods, “pretty much free access” could be offered.
The Reach 11 Sports Complex in Phoenix, which has 18 full-length fields, annually generates over $100 million in direct and induced spending, as well as several million dollars in sales-tax receipts, according to Slusser’s memo.
A single 2012 tournament there — the U.S. Youth Soccer Far West Regional — led to $10 million in local spending. By contrast, the largest local tournament analyzed — the 2013 Fort Lowell Shootout — spurred $3.1 million in spending.
Schmidt said if the full facility is constructed, attracting major state and regional events and tournaments is “virtually guaranteed.”
Supervisor Ramón Valadez, whose district includes the project site, said, “What we’re looking at is potentially being the premier soccer tournament site in Arizona.”
His colleague Steve Christy, however, was more skeptical of the plan and its potential benefits.
Before a firm is selected for designing the first phase, the county supervisors will be asked to consider and provide direction on a plan sometime in the fall to pay for the proposal, according to Huckelberry’s memo. That would likely come in October and — if all goes according to plan — construction on the 12 new fields could start in mid-2018, Huckelberry told the Star.
If the supervisors give the green light, funding would likely be a combination of certificates of participation, a form of debt backed by county-owned properties that does not require voter approval, and simply paying for improvements with cash on hand, referred to in documents as pay-as-you-go financing, according to Huckelberry.
If the certificates of participation, known as COPs, are issued, Huckelberry said it would be repaid in 10 or 15 years to save on interest payments.
Debt service, direct payment or a combination thereof would come from an expected $2.9 million freed up when facilities constructed for Major League Baseball spring training are fully repaid this December, according to a memo from Huckelberry.
In her May memo, Slusser noted the Stadium District has a “more than $3 million fund balance deficit” and is not expected to “be in a positive cash position for another three years.”
However, Huckelberry said officials are conducting a “comprehensive review of tourism revenues and expenditures” in an effort to make additional funding available for the fields.
Huckelberry said getting the first phase on the ground makes private development on the county property, like hotels, more viable. If the county constructs the full sports complex, soccer facilities would be south of I-10 exclusively and land north of the interstate currently used as long fields could be converted to baseball diamonds.
“Typically public parks aren’t profit centers,” Huckelberry said. “But at the same time, it brings the attractions, it brings the people. And the people, particularly from out of the county, they want to stay in a hotel overnight or the weekend and eat meals in restaurants. That’s the driver for economic development.”
But Christy isn’t as sanguine about the proposal’s prospects, and said he’d be more comfortable with private parties investing their own money to develop the property.
“There could be severe economic consequences if this thing fails,” he said. “There are a number of folks in our county that would say ... it is not a good time to be investing this kind of money.”
He said other county responsibilities, like roads, are more appropriate priorities. And then there is the issue of the 2015 election, when voters resoundingly said no to bond financing for the Kino expansion and dozens of other big-ticket projects.
“Clearly the voters rejected this element of the bond package,” he said. “It does appear that there are efforts being made to circumvent what was clearly the desire of the voting public during the bond elections.”
Huckelberry countered that what voters were rejecting was the means of financing, not the projects themselves, which he argued there was broad support for in many cases. With Kino specifically, he said attendance figures and revenues have bounced back since losing Major League Baseball spring training.
Added Valadez: This project “takes an existing gem in our community and makes it an even greater value to the people of our community and our region.”