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New sports complexes to face off in central Delaware

In the next year and a half, two new sports complexes are set to open in Delaware --- just about 45 minutes apart. The Delaware Sports Complex in Middletown and Kent County's The Turf in Frederica are both hoping to support local leagues and bring in big tournaments from around the country.

They're potential competitors -- but as Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik reports, collaboration could be key to their success.



Beside an unkempt, county-owned field next to Route 1 in Frederica, Bill Strickland of the Greater Kent Committee is hoping if he builds it, they will come.

"Well, what we're looking at here is the future site of the Kent County Regional Sports Complex," he says. "What you don't see now but will starting in October of this year when we break ground: 13 rectangular fields with a principal use for the sports of soccer, lacrosse, field hockey…"

"It's about driving out-of-state license plates into the parking areas of our restaurants and hotels."

The not-for-profit complex, known as The Turf, has been in the works for several years. The county had originally hoped to create indoor space, but pared down to make the project more cost-effective.

Then they were held up by a delay to a planned overpass, which was needed for easy access off the highway. DelDOT is now expecting to build that overpass in 2017 -- and Strickland says they're ready to move forward.

"This project will represent, based upon 10 regional tournaments, a direct economic impact to central Delaware ranging from $25 to $30 million annually. That's on 10 tournaments -- we're anticipating that we will likely see somewhere between 15 to 20," Strickland says. "It's rather cliche, but I think it's very true: it's about driving out-of-state license plates into the parking areas of our restaurants and hotels."

But Kent County isn't the only one with that goal. While the Turf was on hold, another player stepped on the field -- the private Delaware Sports Complex, less than 40 miles north, in Middletown.

"Having complexes of this caliber will really allow us to market the state of Delaware as a whole relative to our competitors."

 Pending final town approval this summer, it's set to be built on town land outside Charles Price Memorial Park -- a little quieter than off Route 1. Developer Scott Lobdell points out Amazon's warehouse, and the road that leads downtown.

"So there's about 100 acres over here, about 70 acres over there," he says, gesturing to either side of the park entrance road. "And it's a multi-sport complex -- we have 20 outdoor fullsize fields for different types of sports: lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, rugby, football. You name it, they'll be able to play it on the fields."

Sound similar to Kent County? Well, in Middletown there’s even more:

"We have two indoor buildings. The main one is 160,000 square feet, with offices, party rooms. There's a full size field inside, hard-court surface. It fits three basketball courts with seating," Lobdell continues. "And the smaller building is about 75,000 square feet, and it's sized for an aquatics center but it could be use do other things if the aquatics center isn't… marketable, I guess the term would be."

"Yeah, it depends on what the market bears out," adds his business partner Brian Ellis. "What do we need to fill?"

Ellis and Lobdell have already owned the nearby MTown sports complex for a few years. But they say they knew as soon as it opened that it wasn't big enough for what Middletown was capable of bringing in.

"This particular location truly couldn't be any better," Ellis says. "Middletown is one of the largest growing zip codes in the country right now."

They started up their project after Kent County's was already in the works -- but they say they have different goals. They'll have grass fields instead of turf, and they plan to run local league and club sports, too, which they don't see happening in Kent County.

"We don't look at it as a competition," says Scott Lobdell. "They're completely different than what we're set up."

Kent's Bill Strickland sees it differently.

"Yeah, I would say we would be competitors," he says, adding that the Turf will host more than just tournaments -- and that their differences will give them an edge over Middletown. They'll have fewer fields and less space, but he notes their lighted turf fields will allow them play through poor weather and during more times of year when daylight is in shorter supply.

 For the Delaware Sports Commission, though, it's the more the merrier.

"We look at things from a macro level, so it would really be up to event organizers to decide whatever complexes meet their event needs," says executive director Chris Giacomucci. "Having complexes of this caliber will really allow us to market the state of Delaware as a whole relative to our competitors -- competitive states and other areas within the mid-Atlantic region."

"If you build it, they won't come unless they're incended to come."

Middletown and Kent County are joining an already crowded field -- there are other big facilities nearby, like Crown Sports Center outside Salisbury, Md. and Kirkwood Soccer in Wilmington. But Giacomucci feels there's no limit to how many events they can bring in -- and neither he, nor the new complexes' developers are concerned about filling the space.

Don Schumacher has a different take on that. He heads up the National Association of Sports Commissions, which includes Delaware's, and he worked on early feasibility studies for the Kent County complex. He says existing tournaments aren't hard-up for places to go -- and that old Field of Dreams mantra isn't necessarily true:

"If you build it, they won't come unless they're incended to come," Schumacher says.

That means the new complexes need staff with national clout, and the promise of enough local amenities. He doesn't dispute that Delaware can offer that -- but he says two facilities so close together will probably need to collaborate to succeed.

"It'll get unwieldy unless they all kind of get together at some point."

 "If they can work together from time to time, you could do some of the biggest events in the country. That's gonna be hard to do," he says. "Everybody's going to be trying to schedule their fields as often as they possibly can, which means it'll kind of get unwieldy unless they all kind of get together at some point and say, 'Gee whiz, maybe we can accomplish more things together than we could apart.'"

Middletown's developers say they're open to that idea. And either way, Schumacher says the onus will be on Kent to stay afloat. Out-of-state events drive tourism dollars, and fill more space, but Schumacher says site-specific events will be important too.

"I think they'll need as many events as they can possibly get," from high school soccer practices to league play, he says. "Kent has to keep in mind that the people that are doing these other facilities are players in soccer. I mean, especially Salisbury and Wilmington -- these are people that have been in business a long time."

And he says Middletown's project puts even more pressure on Kent's publicly-funded facility.

"I hear people say, who cares -- don't worry about if it makes any money or not, because it's publicly-funded," Schumacher says. "Well, I happen to think it matters a lot, because publicly-funded facilities are paid for by the taxpayers that are going to be in the area, and you don't want those taxpayers to have a disappointing experience and have a white elephant as a result of it."

Both new facilities are already working on developing their own programs. Middletown's developers have started up a league of their own, Revolution Sports, which is set to open the facility with a lacrosse tournament a year from now. And even though Kent's project got started earlier, they'll follow after that -- with a soccer tournament planned for Columbus Day weekend 2016.