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Opinion: Without action, Springfield falling behind in sports venues

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Look no further than the past 12 months to see the financial impact of winning teams. The Kansas City Chiefs were victorious at the Super Bowl and the St. Louis Blues brought home the Stanley Cup – both after 50-year droughts. Sports bars, sporting goods stores and the producers of “Gloria” were just a few of the beneficiaries of their success.

Sports is a big business in Springfield even without the hardware and parades.

It is the home of the granddaddy store of Bass Pro Shops, a nationally recognized park system and a growing network of greenway trails. Hammons Field is the site of 70 games a year for the Double-A Cardinals. Hundreds of student-athletes are recruited to the Queen City’s universities to compete for the Bears, Panthers and Crusaders.

Hotel rooms and local restaurants are filled when the National Christian Home School Basketball Tournament and the Missouri State High School Athletic Association Championships are held in Springfield each year.

And yet, in spite of its central Midwest location and many family-friendly amenities, Springfield is falling further and further behind. The Springfield Sports Commission’s Sports Tourism Strategic Planning Project noted: “The high level of established competition from nearby communities is only the beginning (most notably Branson, Tulsa and Oklahoma City). There are several communities in the region that are currently expanding their sports tourism efforts, including Fayetteville, Little Rock, Columbia, Norman and Lawrence. This list also doesn’t consider Kansas City and St. Louis, both of whom have long-standing and nationally recognized sports commissions. This growing competition makes it more difficult each day for Springfield to remain relevant locally, regionally and nationally.”

The report reviewed Springfield’s 32 existing sports and entertainment facilities and highlighted the lack of an indoor anchor venue to attract significant overnight stays to the area. It suggested the current Expo Center on St. Louis Street be expanded from its current 45,000 square feet to the 100,000 square feet that would be needed to have an indoor complex with enough room to accommodate a minimum of eight basketball or 16 volleyball courts.

It also encouraged the preparation of a venue master plan to allow parks, colleges and other venues to coordinate necessary investments in other major facilities (such as Cooper Park and Sports Complex, Lake Country Soccer and Ewing Park) to make Springfield more competitive in the region.

The report acknowledged the Springfield Sports Commission’s annual operating budget (approximately $500,000 with assistance from the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau) is funded well below the top sports tourism organizations across the country. By comparison, Tulsa is at $2 million and Oklahoma City invests $1 million a year.

What are the opportunity costs of not investing in facilities and recruitment? The report estimated the implementation of its core recommendations would generate another 15 national and regional tournaments a year, attracting 37,000 attendees, which would generate $16 million in visitor spending and 21,000 room nights.

One of several potential funding sources for these improvements is passing state legislation to allow Springfield voters to decide on increasing the current hotel/motel tax from its current 5% rate to a competitive 7.5%. If passed by voters, it would generate an additional $3 million a year. The legislation deserves to be approved in Jefferson City this spring to allow Springfield voters the same opportunities as those in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Downtown and the entire Springfield community have been waiting for the past decade for a major investment in the convention center complex. It’s time to call the question. An anchor facility to attract sports teams and other events could provide a new revenue stream for its operators and local restaurants and retailers.

Outdoors is one of the major themes surfacing from the Forward SGF community sessions. This effort, combined with expanded investments in greenway trails and parks, would provide quality of life amenities for Springfieldians and our guests.

Part of winning championships is knowing when you have assembled a team that can compete and then having the courage to pull the trigger to make the final set of investments needed to move to the next level of hoisting the trophy. Springfield is poised on that precipice.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at 
rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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