Sports Commission scores more money

December 16, 2011
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Kent County commissioners raised the county’s funding to the West Michigan Sports Commission by 50 percent last week for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Jan. 1.

Commissioners initially allocated $100,000 to the agency for 2012 but then decided to add $50,000 to the pot, which brings the county’s funding to $150,000, or to three-quarters of the $200,000 they gave WMSC annually for its first five years. All the funds will come from revenue the county receives from the lodging excise tax, which adds 5 percent to a guest’s tab at hotels and motels in the county.

“I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves in what the sports commission has accomplished,” said Commissioner Tom Antor of why the agency should get the increase.

Antor was referring to the 200 groups and 240,000 visitors the agency has helped to bring here over its first five years of existence. Mike Guswiler, WMSC executive director, said those groups have spent more than $70 million with area businesses, hotels and restaurants since 2006, the first year of the agency’s existence.

“Kent County has truly contributed to an economic engine, which continues to focus on making this a premier destination for youth and amateur sports tournaments. Many future projects of the sports commission will continue to positively impact the local economy, businesses and citizens of Kent County,” said Guswiler.

“I think it’s a smart business plan to fund the sports commission,” said Commissioner Dick Bulkowski. But Bulkowski added that the sports commission should file an operations report each year with the county.

“I, too, look at the sports commission as an investment. I have no problem with $150,000. I think it’s money well spent,” said Commissioner Stan Ponstein, who also said the funding should have been part of the annual budgeting process rather than an add-on after the budget has been adopted.

Commissioner Bill Hirsch, though, had a different take on the funding. He noted the $150,000 was above the county’s subcommittee recommendation for the agency’s initial funding, while similar funding recommendations from other subcommittees, such as the one for the Purchase of Development Rights program, haven’t been followed. “I will support this, but I’d like the process to be fair and equal on all issues,” he said.

Kent County and a group of key individuals started the sports commission five years ago. The county commission gave the fledgling agency $1 million, $200,000 annually for each of those years, to get it up and running.

“This (new) funding is intended to assist the WMSC in bringing the transitional gap of reduced county support in FY2012 so it can pursue supplemental funding,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio. “The funding will also assist in implementing key measurement strategies to better quantify the hotel-motel room-night impact the WMSC generates.”

Delabbio said the revenue the county receives from the hotel-motel tax was up by 24.5 percent over the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period a year ago, meaning the account had nearly $780,000 more in it on Sept. 30 this year than last. The fund had collected $3.9 million over the first nine months of 2011. A year ago, it contained $3.1 million at the same point in time.

Guswiler said his organization is in a growth stage. “Our funding is down,” he said. “But on the events we are generating that is making up some of the difference.” One of those events is the Meijer State Games that takes place annually across the county in June.

But not every commissioner agreed with allocating more dollars to the agency.

“I’m not sure why we have this resolution. What I don’t see here is that their expenses are up, or they need more staff. I’m not seeing the justification here,” said Commissioner Jim Talen.

“I don’t like to look at this thing as funding expenses, but funding a vision,” countered Commissioner Roger Morgan.

“I think what you’re doing is wonderful,” added Commissioner Carol Hennessy in a comment she directed to Guswiler. “But I would like to see how you’re planning for sustainability on a day-to-day basis.”

Guswiler is hoping a big portion of the agency’s future financial sustainability will come from its most aggressive project to date: the construction of a 12-field complex for youth and amateur baseball and softball tournaments that would bring a regular flow of visitors here and would provide a steady stream of revenue for the local hospitality industry.

The complex is being designed for a site on 10 Mile Road in Plainfield Township near U.S. 131. Guswiler said the design should be ready by the end of the first quarter next year. “We want the fields to be as versatile as possible, so we can capture as many teams as possible,” he said.

The sports commission recently began the public portion of a $6 million fundraising effort to pay for the complex.

“The Everyone Wins baseball complex campaign has generated over $4 million in private giving toward a project that, when complete, is expected to produce nearly 10,000 additional hotel room stays and millions of dollars of spending in Kent County businesses,” said Guswiler. “We certainly have a plan to reach that $6 million goal.”

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