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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)



Thousands of high school wrestlers descended on the Convention Center last weekend for a national championship and the chance to introduce themselves to college recruiters.

The parking lots were jam-packed. The first level of the long building was filled with wrestling mats. About 4,200 wrestlers, 1,200 high school coaches and 200 college coaches, as well as fans, families and friends, attended.

This is just one example, the city says, of why Virginia Beach needs a sports center at the Oceanfront. Events like championship wrestling could stretch further in a new sports facility.

At today's State of The City address, Mayor Will Sessoms is expected to talk about plans for a new indoor sports center that would feature a specialized track aimed at drawing a lucrative offseason event to Virginia Beach: the National Collegiate Athletic Association indoor track and field championships.

The mayor is also expected to announce where the venue will be located.

It was originally planned as a connection to the west end of the Convention Center, but the track add-on may prevent that, according to Deputy City Manager Ron Williams.

To attract the track and field market, the city's investment in the project would grow from $40 million to $55 million. The extra $15 million would be used to build an oval-shaped hydraulic track that could be raised or lowered for banked corners.

Last May, the City Council set aside the first $4 million of the $40 million estimated construction cost. Public facility revenue bonds will fund the project. Taxes on restaurant meals, hotel rooms and amusements would be used to pay off the debt.

There are only nine of these types of indoor tracks in the country, and most are on college campuses, including one at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Williams said.

Having one on neutral ground in Virginia Beach would lure college teams, Williams said.

"Indoor track is one of the fastest-growing sports in the indoor market," he said, adding that the payoff will be worth the extra cost up front.

"We fully believe that, essentially, this center makes us the amateur sports capital of the East Coast," Williams said. "We're being aspirational."

Parking options near the Convention Center are being considered in relation to possible future development projects, including a headquarters hotel, Williams said.

One source of parking could be a city-owned property on the south side of 19th Street, at the corner of Birdneck Road, that is currently wooded.

Site work is expected to begin this summer after the city finalizes the development agreement with general contractor MEB and two additional South Hampton Roads design companies, Clark Nexsen and Hanbury.

The city will have a hand in booking events at the center along with Eastern Sports Management, the company that will oversee operations and currently owns and runs the field house in Princess Anne. That facility is maxed out with local league play, Williams said.

The center would be versatile. The floor, in the middle of the track, could be configured for basketball, volleyball, wrestling or gymnastics.

The city currently hosts 17 events a year that could use the new facility. Those account for 68,000 hotel room nights a year, Williams said.

A hydraulic track could draw up to 19 new events and more than double the room nights, he said.

The sports center would need to be bigger - up to 250,000 square feet - than originally proposed, but that could also mean room for 10 additional basketball courts that could be laid on top of the track.

"The courts and the track are our recipe for success," Williams said.

He heard support for the plan earlier this month at a public briefing he gave to the City Council.

"I wish I had known more about this before we got into the arena," Sessoms said at the briefing on March 6. "This is really, really good."

Councilman Bobby Dyer liked it, too.

"We could really become a sports mecca on the East Coast," he said.

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March 28, 2018


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