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Case study - facility development

Elizabethtown Sports Park

This past week, one of our destination partners asked us to provide a few case studies about facility development. Who has done it well, how was it funded, etc. This reminded us about a Monday Huddle Up we penned back in 2019. A case study on the great things that have happened in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. After looking back on this 4-year-old edition, turns out over 300 of our subscribers are new to the Monday Huddle Up and wouldn’t have read this one. So here it is, a retro Monday Huddle Up going back to 2019. Hope you like it…

The facility arms race in our industry is at an all-time high. Nearly every destination we work with (and also many of the event rights holders) has their eye on facility development. Either enhancing the venues that are already operating, or building entirely new facilities all together. The end goal is usually to improve the venue “tool kit” and to keep up with your competitive set.

This week’s Monday Huddle Up is a success story on new facility development that positively changed the trajectory of a community. This case study offers several best practices for others to follow. Without further ado we present to you the story of Elizabethtown...

In 2005, Elizabethtown (KY) was largely dependent on transient tourism from the nearby interstate to capture tourism dollars. With no convention center or sports complex to drive group business, there were very few ways for Etown (as it is known) to attract visitors. It was then that community leaders sought to be more intentional about how it looked at tourism and economic development. There was very little political support for a convention center, however sports tourism was a hot market at the time and the city council was interested in pursuing something in that realm. A discussion took place over the course of a year, and in 2007 a 2% prepared food (restaurant) tax was passed for the sole purpose of funding a tourism driving sports complex.

Along the way there were some challenges. The council was originally deadlocked with the mayor casting the deciding vote to move forward with the tax. In addition, there were some local politics that needed to be navigated to garner enough support to get the project moving ahead. Specifically, the first $3 million generated by the tax was allocated to the arts in the form of funding a restoration of Etown’s State Theater (also a tourism driving asset for the community). After those hurdles were cleared, the money collected would be solely allocated to buy the land for the complex, build it, and maintain/manage it in the future. Keep in mind, at this time tourism bureaus were not in the business of driving the tax discussion to build sports facilities, let alone ones with 12 diamonds and another 12 multi-sport flat fields. While this process is more of a common practice today, it was hardly ever done back in the 2000s.

We often tell our destination partners that if they are going to get in the facility game, they have to be patient and play for the long haul. It’s most common that from the initial discussion about a potential facility to it actually opening usually takes 4-5 years. So patience is critical in getting a venue done right. Here is a quick timeline of the Etown journey…

2005/2006 – Initial discussions about the sports complex concept.

2007 – Tax passes to fund the State Theater, then eventually the sports complex.

2007 to 2010 – Land acquisition and infrastructure to the venue created.

2010/2011 – Sports fields constructed.

2012 – First event held at the complex.

2017/2018 – Five year review of the management model.

2019 – Transition of facility management from parks and recreation to private management.

At the end of the day the facility cost $28 million to construct, which was bonded against the restaurant tax which generates approximately $2 million per year. The facility’s primary use is for tourism. So tourism first, community users second. This is often a difficult concept for tax paying citizens to understand, and one many politicians don’t want to entertain. However in this case, the sports park not only “pays for itself” through the large amount of revenue it drives to the community, the park also has created an environment for private development. Here are some of the things that have opened since the sports park was developed…

  • A full service movie theater.

  • Water park.

  • Trampoline park.

  • Escape room.

  • Mobile Esports truck.

  • Axe throwing facility.

  • 5 new hotels.

  • Academy Sports.

Add to this numerous restaurants and bars and a business redevelopment boom in the downtown area which is not very far from the sports complex. This additional development has led to an increase in the annual restaurant tax collections that initially funded the facility. In 2020 the tax was expected to generate $3.5 million, nearly double what it was in 2007.

On any metric, the Elizabethtown Sports Park has been a smashing success. In working with Janna Clark and the team there in Etown over the years, here are a few best practice takeaways for you should you embark on a new facility development project…

  • It’s likely you have to give up something to get something (the commitment to the arts in Etown was just such a give and take).

  • Visit the best facilities our country has to offer. Each facility has something great you can borrow from it and use in your community.

  • “Right size” the facility concept. Have a professional firm lead a feasibility study to make sure what you plan to build is the right fit for your community and meets the needs of your event right shoulder partners.

  • Engage event rights holders in your process. Ask them to evaluate your venue concept, even invite them to help you design it. The more engaged and vested they are on the front end, the more likely they will be to award you events once the facility opens.

  • Talk to your stakeholders. Community groups, elected officials, local sports clubs, you name it. The more support you have from these groups, the more likely the political will to pursue a facility project will be there when it’s go time.

Facility development is not for the weak of heart. Do your homework, align your supporters, and be patient. As a mentor of mine used to say often, “It’s a journey, not a sprint.”

Thank you to Janna for helping us tell the Etown story. Should you follow in their footsteps, good luck on your journey.

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