Why a Midwestern suburb is going on a youth sports building frenzy
Here is an example on what gets built, and what doesn’t, in our not-officially-in-a-recession economy.
In the fast-growing Indianapolis suburb of Westfield, Ind., there was a proposed $1 billion, 1,400-acre project that was going to include mostly new housing and stores, but would also have 150 acres set aside for youth sports fields, a new Y, and a minor-league baseball stadium. Because of the lousy real estate market, the housing-and-stores part of the development has been cut by two-thirds.
Meanwhile, the athletics portion of the project has broken off, and its size has doubled — to 300 acres, or as the Indianapolis Business Journal points out, the size of the Kings Island amusement park.
I’ve written about it here before (and before that), and I’ll write about it again, because cities keep doing it: using youth sports as an economic development tool. And why not? At most, your huge complex can host scads of tournaments, which means scads of out-of-town teams, which means scads of parents and kids spending money at your hotels and restaurants. At worst, if the out-of-towners don’t show up, you can justify the cost of the project (and Westfield’s was estimated, when it was half the current size, at around $60 million) by pointing out that, unlike building a new NFL stadium, the community gets to use it.
Even in the throes of the recession, parents in unemployment-scarred towns such as Elkhart, Ind., ponied up to put their kids in sports. As one parent told me in 2009, he will cut any other expense, because “if you save $5, it’s $5 you can spend on your child.” With such a loyal spending base to work with, it’s no wonder even little towns like Edwardsburg, Mich. (population 1,200), have huge sports complexes in the planning or construction stages.
After all, you don’t want to have your hometown newspaper write about all the tournaments (and money) you lost because you didn’t keep up with the Basketball Joneses. (Often, the local coverage of proposed complexes sounds a lot like the fawning articles that beat the drums for taxpayer-funded pro stadiums. Sample headline: “New sports complex offers cities financial home run.”) Again, so what if the promised multimillion-dollar impact from youth tournaments doesn’t happen? At least your kids have a nice place to play, right?
Westfield, population 27,000, is much more ambitious than most cities building youth sports complexes. Instead of just saying, we’re building a complex, Westfield and its mayor, Andy Cook (no relation to your humble blogger) have declared they are building “The Family Sports Capital of America.”
Why so grandiose? Westfield, located in Indiana’s Hamilton County, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, is trying to grab more of the executives who have been more apt to settle in other suburbs, particularly Carmel, located immediately to Westfield’s south. Carmel (hometown of your humble blogger) itself has stood out nationally because of its grand schemes, such as its embrace of roundabouts, its snagging of Michael Feinstein and his Great American Songbook, and its getting Kendra Wilkinson to film her reality show there. A few years back, the U.S. Census Bureau renamed the Indianapolis metropolitan area the Indianapolis-Carmel metro. One of Westfield’s few claims to fame was being the home of a serial killer.
Carmel has always been bigger, richer and more important than Westfield, and damnit, if the town was going to be known for being more than Carmel’s leftovers, it needed to do something grand. Hence, “The Family Sports Capital of America.” (Giving yourself a grandiose nickname is a tradition among Hoosiers. See Michael Jackson, “King of Pop.”)
With ground yet to be broken, we’re a long way from finding out whether Westfield can pop a big civic boner in the face of its rival, which I just realized is a highly inappropriate metaphor in a piece about a place kids play. But we are hardly a long way away from cities of any size determining that putting money into shiny, new youth sports complexes is maybe not such a good idea after all. As long as parents are willing to spend their last $5 on their kids and their sports, there is going to be a market for the facilities. The only question might be is if some other town is going to try to beat Westfield to the “Family Sports Capital of America” punch.
(Actually, Blaine, Minn., already did.)