After a presentation Tuesday, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners are moving ahead with a project to build a sports center at Celebration Pointe — but not without concerns.
The presentation was given by Brian Connolly of Victus Advisors, a Utah-based consulting firm that specializes in sports and event facilities. Victus Advisors conducted a study in January that found a demand in Alachua County for a new sports center.
The demand was for a sports center that included a minimum of eight indoor courts for basketball and volleyball, an indoor banked track, retractable or portable seating for over 3,000 people, and parking for up to 1,150 vehicles.
During that earlier study, Victus Advisors also identified Celebration Pointe as the ideal location for the sports center because of its access to hotels, shops, restaurants and the highway. The study advised the location would drive tourists to the center.
The center would serve primarily as an attraction to people outside of Gainesville. According to the latest report from Victus Advisors, the Gainesville Sports Commission has a reputation for bringing regional and national sports events to town. The proposed sports center would be designed with these events in mind. It would be funded with proceeds from the county’s bed tax, which hotel guests pay.
“Those new people from outside the county bringing money inside the county is what drives economic impact,” Connolly said.
The project is estimated to generate approximately $1.2 billion over the next 30 years and create over 1,000 annual jobs.
Not everyone, though, is eager to agree with Connolly’s projections.
Anthony Johnson of Citizens for Efficient Government began his comments with a parable. He talked about how St. Louis had publicly funded a multi-million dollar football stadium for what was then their National Football League team, only for the St. Louis Rams to become the Los Angeles Rams and leave the citizens of St. Louis hurting financially in their absence.
Johnson used this example to convey his apprehension about pursuing the sports center project if it were to — at some point — fall out of use.
“This is happening all over the country,” he said. “Let’s not let this be another St. Louis.”
Other issues with the uncertain success of the project, as identified by Victus Advisors, include competition from nearby larger venues, such as in Jacksonville or Orlando, and the lack of a major airport.
The major question is whether the sports center will be publicly owned, by Alachua County, or privately owned, by Viking Companies, and who will operate it.
The recommendation Connolly said Victus Advisors has is for the sports center to be publicly funded but operated by a third party.
Because the proposed location for the sports center is in Celebration Pointe, it would fall within the Celebration Pointe Community Development District. Alachua County established the district in 2012, and it consists of 237 acres of land.
A 1% fee is added to retail transactions within the district to help finance Celebration Pointe’s developments.
“From our perspective,” Connolly said, “this is a key component to being able to establish a partnership.”
As part of the proposal for the sports center, some of the residential space planned for Celebration Pointe’s development would instead be used as office space.
Commissioner Mike Byerly expressed concern over how this would affect what he referred to as the “live, work, play” concept of Celebration Pointe.
“The county’s been very supportive of that,” he said. “That’s what we hoped was gonna drive the success of Celebration Pointe.”
Svein Dyrkolbotn, principal owner of Viking Companies, estimated that the sports center would cut residential development in half but that it depends on the demand for it.
“Some of the chess pieces are still being moved around on the chessboard,” he said.
Toward the end of the meeting, the topic of conversation shifted to the other side of town.
“It still leaves east Gainesville in limbo,” said Board of Commissioners Chair Charles Chestnut of the sports center project. “It really kind of bothers me.”
Victus Advisors acknowledged in their study that building the sports center at Celebration Pointe could be taking away a redevelopment opportunity from east or downtown Gainesville.
The commissioners discussed the lack of development in east Gainesville, particularly along the corridor of NE 8th Avenue and Waldo Road. In its initial survey, Victus Advisors examined three locations in central and east Gainesville as potential sites for the sports center but decided none were favorable.
The commissioners decided to add a chair’s letter encouraging the City of Gainesville to participate in “parallel development” – developing east Gainesville as the sports center project moves forward.
The motion to further explore the sports center plans carried.
As the meeting adjourned, Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked Dyrkolbotn if he was OK with the project moving forward.
“Are we pulling you guys along faster than you feel like you can go?” she asked.
Dyrkolbotn quipped: “Not fast enough.”