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COLUMN

Will new sports-marketing group make city a 'boomtown' for amateur sports?

Merger of Visit Fort Wayne, Sports Corp. could attract more tournaments, dollars

Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 12:01 am

In September 2012 I wrote a column about how a new $14 million north-side ice complex and the imminent completion of an adjacent $7.5 million volleyball and basketball fieldhouse could help make Fort Wayne a “boomtown of sorts for amateur athletics.”

An imminent change in the city's sports-marketing structure is designed to turn that potential into reality.

In a development that could be highlighted by Mayor Tom Henry in next week's “State of the City” address, Visit Fort Wayne and the Fort Wayne Sports Corp. are working on a merger that could lead to the creation of a permanent “sports commission” that would work to attract amateur and collegiate athletic events to the Summit City.

“We're one of the largest cities without one, and since I arrived in Fort Wayne there's always been a desire for a publicly funded sports commission,” said Mike McCaffrey, the University of Saint Francis Athletic Director who also serves as president of the Sports Corp. “We've always specialized in home-grown events while Visit Fort Wayne has targeted out-of-town visitors. It's a natural synergy.”

Just how the new structure would work remains to be seen, but the potential is obvious. As I reported two years ago, Fort Wayne was expected to host more than 80 amateur sporting events in 2012, attracting more than 150,000 people who would inject more than $19 million into the local economy. But as Visit Fort Wayne President Dan O'Connell noted, his agency has only a half-time person devoted to sports tourism now. How much more effective might those efforts be if his office could add another two employees earmarked for that purpose?

The stakes are high, O'Connell said. The National Collegiate Athletic Association recently chose four years' worth of sites for regional and national championships. Fort Wayne bid on eigh, but despite the presence of the new Sports One-Parkview Fieldhouse, the Lutheran Health SportsCenter and older but excellent facilities such as the Memorial Coliseum, Spiece Fieldhouse, the Memorial Coliseum, Ash Centre and those at IPFW, it was shut out – in part because other cities' presentations were more unified and, apparently, effective.

“Our hope is the city would support (a sports corporation), and we would help,” O'Connor said.

This is not a pipe dream. As I noted in 2012, Indianapolis' rebirth began in the 1970s with a focus on attracting amateur sports. Our facilities are indeed excellent for a city this size, and there's no reason they cannot attract even more events, visitors and economic activity than they already do.

Forging a closer working relationship between the two similar but distinct entities is a logical step in that direction. Visit Fort Wayne is the city's primary tourism-marketing agency. The Sports Corp., founded in 1990 as an offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce, has helped organize such events as the Lifetime Sports Academy, Fort4Fitness and others. Their sports-related efforts, O'Connell said, “could be more effective by merging their resources and energies.”

The timing seems right. In 2012 City Council earmarked $200,000 in “Legacy” funds – the $72 million pool created through the sale of the old City Light electric utility – toward a study of how best to maximize youth sports. Working with the Parks and Recreation Department, Aquarius Sports and Entertainment conducted the study and received input from nearly 900 people. Originally scheduled for late last year, the results are expected to be released as soon as this month. As The News-Sentinel reported in December, a public forum revealed the need for additional “multisurface and multipurpose facilities that can be used year-round to train and host regional and national tournaments.

Having a sports-savvy organization in place to help promote and implement those results just make sense -- just as various economic development groups have recently come together under the "Greater Fort Wayne" umbrella.

The devil will be in the details, of course, and any proposal for additional public funding must be carefully scrutinized. But if the potential effectiveness of a sports commission can be demonstrated, it could do more than justify a cautious and return-conscious use of public dollars. It may also persuade private businesses, organizations and individuals – especially those who stand to benefit most from sports tourism – to become more involved.

At least, it should.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.