Sports Panel Game On

November 3, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Now that the initial report has been filed, the next steps that need to be taken to create a sports commission for West Michigan are to form the nonprofit body to house it, find up to 40 members to serve on its board, analyze the area’s existing facilities to determine what sporting events these are best suited for, and find the appropriate funding sources to make the commission a player.

The commission will have an annual operating budget ranging from $400,000 to $500,000 and be operational by the middle of next year. Kent County commissioners will be asked shortly to dedicate $1 million to that operating budget by allocating $200,000 each year for five years, starting next year.

Kent County Chairman Roger Morgan has said that revenue will come from the county’s lodging excise tax. Also known as the hotel-motel tax, the county adds a 5 percent fee to a guest’s lodging tab and uses part of the revenue to make payments on the DeVos Place construction bond package and to fund the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Universal Forest Products Chairman Peter Secchia will lead a private-sector fundraising drive that will have a goal of raising $100,000 per year for at least the next three years.

Convention and Visitors Bureau President Steve Wilson said his group will solicit funds from members of the county’s lodging association and provide in-kind support by housing the commission in its office and assisting with its marketing efforts.

Convention and Arena Authority board member Joseph Tomaselli said he will soon ask that panel to make an annual contribution to the commission’s operating budget.

“We think (the commission) will provide benefits to Van Andel Arena and to the hotel-motel tax,” said Tomaselli.

Area foundations also will be asked to contribute.

The major goal of the commission is to increase travel to the region by hosting sporting events that would attract players, family members and fans to local hotels, restaurants and shops during their stay, especially those located outside of downtown.

“We’re doing this to help those outlying hotels and motels, and we need their support. I think we have their support,” said Secchia.

The economic potential of such an effort can be staggering. The county subcommittee that laid the groundwork for the commission noted that Kingston, Tenn., got a $7 million infusion from hosting just four events. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Kingston has a population of 5,264.

“We believe this sports commission will provide benefits to all parts of our community,” said County Commission Vice Chairman Dan Koorndyk, who chaired the subcommittee, which met for three months and traveled to St. Louis and Indianapolis to learn more.

The five-member subcommittee, which was organized by Morgan, concluded that the commission should go after participatory events such as those sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union and youth leagues; a major image event that would give the region a sports identity such as an NCAA basketball first-round tournament; and a homegrown event in an “up and coming” sport, possibly as diverse as disc golf or ballroom dancing.

“We need to identify a signature event. The commission would own and market these types of events, and we’ll put the money back into the commission,” said Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt.

Britt said analyzing the current sports facilities in the region would cost about $15,000, and the study’s results should provide insights into the specific events the commission should pursue.

The subcommittee reported that Sports Travel magazine determined sports tourism is a $118.3 billion national industry. While teams spend $6.1 billion each year in travel, fans and families are an even more lucrative market as they spend $47.3 billion annually on attending these events.

“AAU sports is a very large business — a $4.5 billion industry — and we’re not getting any of that,” added Secchia.

County Commissioners David Morren and Richard Vander Molen and local attorney Bill McDonald joined Koorndyk and Britt in serving on the subcommittee. The group plans to present its findings to the county commission next month and ask commissioners to fund the analysis then. The county’s Finance Committee will hear from the subcommittee next week.

Britt said the sports commission is likely to have 40 members; nine will be asked to serve on the executive committee. An executive director will be selected from a national search to run the organization.

“It’s essential to think about this on a long-term basis,” said Britt. “To put it in sports terms, this is a marathon and not a sprint.”    

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