Nearing The Finish Line

October 13, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — After taking a long, hard look at how sports authorities operate in Indianapolis and St. Louis, the committee charged with deciding what role Kent County will play in a local sports commission is expected to deliver its final report early next month.

County Assistant Administrator Wayman Britt, one of five members asked to serve on the committee by County Commission Chairman Roger Morgan, said it was time to pull the commission together.

Britt believes the area, which includes Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon, has a lot of potential to draw sporting events, athletes’ families and fans here. Britt defined the effort as a promising venture with business implications, but realized that a sports commission based in West Michigan wouldn’t top the authorities in Indianapolis and St. Louis.

“But they can’t host everything,” he said.

On the collegiate level, Britt said a local commission likely couldn’t lock in a lot of NCAA Division I events, as those normally go to major markets.

“We’re not going to have a Final Four in Grand Rapids,” he said of the annual Division I basketball championship.

He should know, having played in one as captain and defensive standout of the 1976 University of Michigan team. But Britt said it was quite possible to host events sponsored by NCAA divisions II and III and by the NAIA with all the successes local colleges have had in those divisions.

“We can sway those governing bodies to take a look at us. A sports commission could help plan and support those things.”

Britt said the committee has touched base with athletic directors at area colleges and high schools to let them know what is being done and to get their support for the effort.

“We have a well-kept secret here and we see (a commission) not only benefiting Grand Rapids, but Holland and Muskegon, as well,” he said.

What is driving the commission is a desire to create more business for the hospitality industry. Joseph Tomaselli, Amway Hotel Corp. president and Convention and Visitors Bureau board member, said the number of visitors coming to West Michigan is on the rise, and the hospitality business could be ranked as the area’s second or third top industry.

Tomaselli said 120,000 convention delegates will go through DeVos Place this year, and many will stay at area hotels and eat at local restaurants. He said the new convention center and the bureau’s new marketing efforts have brought more visitors to the region.

“It touches all parts of the economy. It is an economic engine,” he said of DeVos Place. “Marketing is the name of the game.”

CVB President Steve Wilson returned the favor and credited Tomaselli with directing the bureau’s marketing strategy. Then Wilson said his agency was actively involved in helping to create the sports commission.

County commissioners David Morren, Dan Koorndyke and Dick Vander Molen, and local attorney Bill MacDonald have joined Britt on the county’s committee. Proponents of the commission see the county dedicating a portion of the lodging excise revenue as the group’s funding source.

“We’re looking at about $200,000; that’s the number that is being kicked around,” said Morgan last summer. “I don’t know if that will be the final number or not, but that seems to be the starting point.”    

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