2017-10-11 / Featured / Front Page

County leads region in sports tourism

River City Sportsplex outdraws The Diamond, other regional facilities

Lacrosse players compete during a game at River City Sportsplex in late spring. 
JAMES HASKINS Lacrosse players compete during a game at River City Sportsplex in late spring. JAMES HASKINS Less than a year after the county purchased River City Sportsplex, the athletic complex off Genito Road is paying dividends. And – as an added bonus to some county leaders – bragging rights.

Including county residents, the 105-acre Genito Road athletic complex had 523,000 visitors in fiscal year 2017, making it the busiest sports destination in the metro region. By comparison, the Richmond Flying Squirrels played 64 home games during the 2017 season and had total attendance of 386,185.

“As much as we talk about minor league baseball in our community, the Squirrels do not drive the numbers that River City drives,” acknowledged Jon Lugbill, executive director of Richmond Sports Backers, during a recent Board of Supervisors work session. “Can you say that again? I want to make sure people hear it,” replied Clover Hill Supervisor Chris Winslow, drawing laughter from his fellow supervisors and assembled staff.

County leaders have been criticized in recent years for their refusal to help the city finance construction of a new ballpark for the Flying Squirrels. Instead, they have allocated local dollars to athletic facilities in Chesterfield.

The county spent $5.4 million last December to purchase River City Sportsplex from Shaw Industries, which had acquired the property at a foreclosure auction after its original owner went bankrupt in 2012.

The board recently authorized the sale of $4.6 million in bonds to finance several improvements to the facility’s infrastructure, including construction of a left-hand turn lane and median crossover on Genito Road that will allow eastbound visitors to access the entrance without having to make a U-turn.

The county also will build new permanent restroom and concession facilities, expand the paved parking area and install lights on the three synthetic turf playing fields.

When the project is completed, the complex will have 12 lighted turf fields. That’s a major draw for organizers of the youth sports tournaments that bring thousands of visitors to Chesterfield annually.

As the national competition for sports tourism dollars heats up, county leaders are confident that enhancing Chesterfield’s athletic facilities will protect its status as a major destination for out-of-town visitors.

Lugbill noted that localities in Indiana, Delaware and Pennsylvania have built similar athletic complexes over the past few years.

“You’re used to competing with Henrico, someone next door, but you have to remember you’re competing on a national level,” he added. “The number of participants in youth sports isn’t increasing. We’re competing for the same size pie. If you’re not keeping up with other facilities, you’re not staying ahead.”

Sports tourism is big business in Chesterfield, which hosted 50 such events and brought in nearly 190,000 visitors from outside the county during fiscal year 2017. According to data provided by Richmond Region Tourism, that translated into a local economic impact of $38.6 million – an increase of $900,000 over the prior year.

The impact on the regional economy was $81.7 million, or $5 million more than fiscal year 2016.

Matoaca Supervisor Steve Elswick pointed out that 190,000 visitors is more than the region’s NASCAR track draws in three races. The newly rebranded Richmond Raceway in eastern Henrico County has struggled to sell out even after reducing its seating capacity to 60,000.

“I think the big message here is that Chesterfield County is doing its part on regionalism and we haven’t asked for a dime from anyone else,” Elswick said.

The acquisition of River City Sportsplex, which Lugbill called the “cornerstone” of the county’s sports tourism efforts, has given county residents greater access to the facility than they had when it was privately owned.

The Economic Development Authority also is spending $7 million to build a 50,000 squarefoot facility for lease by Richmond Volleyball Club. A significant percentage of the club’s members live in Chesterfield.

“Although we certainly welcome the economic impact [from sports tourism], we are equally if not more pleased that our citizens have the opportunity to benefit from our upgraded facilities,” added Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle.

The success of sports tourism could indirectly help relieve traffic problems at the county’s most congested intersection. While state transportation officials initially resisted a proposal to build an exit ramp from state Route 288 to Genito Road, Winslow is hopeful the project will get the green light at some point.

Developers of Waterford Park, a mixed-use project which will be located less than a mile away from River City Sportsplex, have committed to pay for construction of the ramp if the county can get approval from the state.

It would allow visitors to access both facilities without having to use Hull Street Road or Charter Colony Parkway. County residents also could use the Genito Road ramp and bypass the heavily traveled Route 360-288 interchange during their evening commute.

The Board of Supervisors approved Waterford Park, which is expected to include a hotel, restaurants and retail space along with a whitewater adventure area, in February. ¦

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