Coming up short
In 2008, the Hays Sports Complex Committee hired the Docking Institute to conduct an economic impact study of what such a complex could mean for the community. The predictions were impressive: The Hays economy could receive a $2.4 million annual boost from young athletes and their families traveling here for tournaments. The money would be spent on hotels, restaurants, groceries, parking, fees, fuel, shopping and cultural activities.
Armed with such optimism, the sportsplex committee ran a successful campaign to pay for the facility with a half-cent sales tax for four years. While the original construction estimate of $8 million proved inadequate, local businesses and generous philanthropists stepped up and the impressive athletic complex was built along U.S. Highway 183 Bypass. With fields for soccer, football, baseball and softball that would be used by area residents and out-of-town teams alike, the games began in the fall of 2011.
The Bickle/Schmidt Sports Complex completed its first full season in 2012. In a report to Hays city commissioners last month, the numbers don't appear to match the Docking predictions.
Hays Recreation Commission Superintendent Roger Bixenman acknowledged the facility ended up $28,803 in the red. The $182,000 gross revenue was offset by $203,000 in expenses. Start-up costs for new maintenance and concession equipment was the reason given for the negative cash flow, but such expenditures won't be repeated moving forward.
For a brand-new operation, the profit/loss statement shouldn't alarm anybody. Viewed as a quality-of-life amenity, the sportsplex is worth operating at a reasonable loss on an annual basis. Just witness the delight on local children's faces.
The key numbers to be examined are the effect on the local economy. In his address to the city commission, Bixenman pointed to information collected by Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jana Jordan.
"To me, it's quite impressive that total teams' expenditures were about $108,000 and fans and families were about $209,000," Bixenman said. "I think there were about 30-some teams we didn't get responses back from out of the 88 teams that had come to Hays."
Even if one were to be overly generous with estimates of what those 30-some teams might have reported on the surveys had they responded, the most one could do is double the $317,000 figure. That would make $634,000 -- a far cry from the $2.4 million amount called for in the Docking study. To be fair, the study did point out there was a 2.5 percent probability the revenue could end up being less than $2.1 million. And it appears the facility performed at a level that hit those low odds.
This could be troubling. The Docking study also pointed out "nice new facilities" tend to draw "especially large spectator crowds" for the first several years. The implication we read is attendance could drop as the facility ages.
So, what went wrong? We would suggest it is precisely the same thing we encouraged the Hays Sports Complex Committee to examine when in the discovery process -- namely, potential market saturation. While it was all well and good to look at existing facilities to see what kind of money they were bringing in, the committee did not research whether there was room in the market for yet another sports complex. There are, after all, only so many teams with room on their schedule to attend even one more out-of-town tournament.
HRC is well aware of that by this point. Last June, when discussing poor turnout at a tourney here because of competing events elsewhere in the state, sports complex director Ben Moeckel said: "The thing about it, there's so many tournaments, you can play somewhere every weekend."
The situation is not hopeless by any means. Sales tax collections are coming in at a rate that will far surpass the original estimated $8 million. It likely will surpass $10 million by the time the tax sunsets in March. The entire facility will be paid for and there will be money in the bank for future capital improvements.
But operationally, HRC has a lot to accomplish in order to prove the substantial investment was worthwhile for the community. The profit/loss statement reveals not a single dollar was spent in either the advertising or brochures/printing line items. The "build it and they will come" mindset might well work in movies, but not in real life.
The Bickle/Schmidt Sports Complex is in need of a serious marketing campaign -- and soon. Warm weather is but a few months hence.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry