Opinion: Offer More Sports Tourism for Youths

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Naples Daily News (Florida)


Collier County hasn't built it, yet they're certainly coming.

So we applaud the newly constituted County Commission for calling off the game rather than negotiating on a spring training stadium for the Atlanta Braves. However, we also urge the commission with three new members to waste no time before they T-ball up a discussion of furthering youth sports with a multidimensional athletic complex.

The famous whispered line from the 1989 film classic "Field of Dreams" ("If you build it, he will come," referring to Shoeless Joe Jackson) has been altered by pop culture into "they," not just "he." In these past 25-plus years, we've seen a change toward a younger Collier County that supports further investing in youth sports, because "they" - meaning competing youngsters - are coming to Southwest Florida along with more tourists.

Spring training

The prior commission had asked staff to analyze possibilities for spring training for the Braves. It could have been coupled with an amateur and youth sports complex on an adjacent 305 acres owned by county taxpayers near the Interstate 75 and Collier Boulevard interchange.

The analysis turned up no persuasive arguments to invest some $100 million for land and a stadium for professional ballplayers. The best argument we heard was that the Braves' spring training attendance ranks second in Florida to the New York Yankees. Yet the Braves now train in a major population center in the Orlando area near Disney World in the third-largest seating capacity stadium in the Grapefruit League, so that's hardly surprising.

What did resonate with us, however, were findings by Commissioner Penny Taylor's staff:

Of 42 spring training stadiums built in Florida, 29 have been abandoned; some have gone through multimillion-dollar renovations.

Collier has some $130 million of transportation needs "today," yet there is no identified way to pay for them. That exceeds the cost of this stadium.

We're reminded how the Braves moved from West Palm Beach to their current site, opened in 1997 as a "state of the art" stadium, and now want to use local and state money to relocate again. We oppose using state money for billion-dollar professional teams to play community hopscotch within Florida.

The new commission, with members Burt Saunders, Andy Solis and Bill McDaniel in their first meeting Tuesday, wisely decided not to further pursue a Braves deal.


What was persuasive to us during Tuesday's discussion were these comments:

"We're maxed out with existing facilities for recreational sports," Deputy County Manager Nick Casalanguida said of fields to provide more local, tournament and tourist-drawing events for softball, soccer, triathlons and similar events geared to younger generations.

"Don't lose sight of the need for growth in the facilities for sports and recreation," urged Collier County Sports Council President Mary Shea.


At other times during Tuesday's meeting, it was noted what a tourism boost pickleball has been for Collier, that staff is analyzing the possibility of municipal golf rather than seeing a current course converted, and the prior commission authorized hiring a deputy tourism director to further sports marketing.

While pickleball and golf certainly don't exclude children, that's not exactly our vision for a targeted youth sports complex.

Commissioners next gather Jan. 3 for a nonvoting meeting to discuss future land use. Thanks to past visionary work by county staff, the new board wouldn't have to start from scratch in pursuing a multisports complex for youth.

Not long ago, staff and consultants documented demand that led to the new sports tourism position; embarked on four land-use plan updates; studied possible sites for a multisports complex, and explored what's appropriate for a new regional park near Golden Gate Estates. Collier County Public Schools staff tracks demographics for school zoning, so data should be available on where the kids are.

Calling off the pursuit of spring training doesn't mean there isn't a cornfield somewhere in Collier appropriate for a youth sports complex.

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December 15, 2016


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