Latest in NY Times: Kids Sports As Development Tool

ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — Since 1937, when the Treasury Department established a bullion repository at nearby Fort Knox, gold has been the principal attraction of this city of 28,531 south of Louisville. Now, travel and tourism executives are counting on a $29 million youth sports complex under construction northwest of town to help fill Elizabethtown’s 1,525 hotel rooms and drive development of hundreds more.

Along with China, I’ve spent a good bit of time this summer reporting in Kentucky for a project that looks closely at Owensboro’s capacity to thrive in the 21st century. There I learned about the youth sports tournament sector, which is prompting communities to invest in their recreational sports infrastructure as an economic development strategy. This week the New York Times published my account of the trend, reported from nearby Elizabethtown.

The 150-acre Elizabethtown Sports Park, set to open next summer, will have 12 baseball and softball diamonds, 10 natural turf soccer and football fields, 2 full-size synthetic turf fields and a diamond for physically disabled athletes. The sports park also includes powerful lighting, six concession buildings, pavilions to house meeting spaces and locker rooms, four playgrounds, Wi-Fi access so events can be viewed live on the Internet and a three-mile-long running and walking path that circles the complex.

Last year, American families spent $7 billion traveling with their children to youth sports tournaments, said Don , the executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, a group based in Cincinnati that represents tournament organizers and hosting facilities.

The youth sports travel segment, as it is called, is a little less than 10 percent of the national leisure travel industry, estimated at $77 billion, he said — and it is growing by 3 to 5 percent annually, faster than most other segments. The industry is considered somewhat recession-proof, as families eager to provide their children with tournament-level competition are using the trips as vacations.

Among the first private developers to recognize the trend was the Walt Disney Company, which spent $100 million to turn 220 acres in at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., into a youth sports complex that opened in 1997. The park, now named the ESPN Wide World of Sports, includes a 9,500-seat baseball stadium, an arena and fields and facilities for basketball, football, soccer, tennis, volleyball and other sports.

The Elizabethtown Sports Park is publicly financed by a restaurant sales tax that was enacted in 2007. It will be one of the largest such complexes in the country, Mr. Schumacher said, with the ability to host four- and five-day tournaments that will attract hundreds of teams and thousands of spectators from across the Southeast.\n “They are going to be able to fill a lot of hotel rooms and restaurants,” he said. “Communities that have youth sports complexes understand that visitor spending is an important part of their local economies.”

About 90 miles west of Elizabethtown is Owensboro, Ky., an Ohio River city of 57,265. It was among the first communities in the Southeast to publicly finance fields and facilities to capture the youth sports travel market. In 2001, the city hosted 52 girls softball teams for a tournament in one of its parks that had undergone a $400,000 overhaul to build modern diamonds.

For more on Elizabethtown click here.

For more on the Owensboro project, What’s Done, What’s Next: A Civic Pact, see here.

— Keith Schneider

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