Town looks to sports tournaments to draw new visitors, revenues

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MANCHESTER — The bulldozers and graders have only begun their work, and the "field of dreams" is still mostly a brownish topsoil, but town officials are pushing ahead to lay the groundwork for developing the soon-to-enhanced Dana Thompson Recreation Park as a venue for multi-team sports tournaments, hopefully by next year.

An ad hoc committee of local businesspeople and residents has been meeting to discuss how to get soccer, lacrosse and other sports tournaments that potentially could involve up to 100 different teams in place to make use of the two new fields under construction at the Rec Park. They will complement the existing Applejack Field and other fields at local schools to provide the space for multiple teams to compete in weekend-long tournaments which will also draw parents, siblings and other supporters to town, most if not all of the them needing lodging and food options. And while they are here, and in-between games, a few might be enticed to explore the area's other attractions, like shopping and site-seeing, pumping more revenue into local coffers.

"We want to develop not only the tournaments themselves but a sense of the whole community — restaurants, hotels and encouraging people when they're not playing to go downtown and go shopping," said John O'Keefe, Manchester's town manager.

Across the nation, youth sports is a growing industry, estimated to yield about $7 billion in spending nationwide just on traveling by parents, according to a study prepared for the Traverse City, Mich. Chamber of Commerce, which was analyzing the impact of two large sports tournaments hosted there. In the economic study the Traverse City officials released in 2012, the typical tournament athlete was accompanied by more than two people, and 83 percent of all families attending the two local tournaments — one a soccer tournament and the other a lacrosse one — paid for some form of accommodations. The average non-local family spent almost $1,000 per unit on lodging, meals, groceries, fuel and other items like souvenirs and entertainment, according to the study.

While the economics of the two communities could be different, even a more conservative reckoning of $500 per family, in a 100 team tournament that could conceivably attract roughly 4,000 people between players, coaches, staff, parents, other family members and friends could yield an economic impact of approximately $500,000, O'Keefe and Pauline Moore, the town's economic development officer, estimated during a discussion at Town Hall last week.

The two new fields under construction — named McClellan field and Eckhardt Field — are large enough to hold two youth soccer games each on their 125-by-75 yard surfaces. All told, the town has about 15 fields in five different venues that could be used, all of them close to the downtown core, which is not always the case at some of the other sports tournaments he's attended, O'Keefe said.

There is still much to be figured out and planned for before a tournament approaching 100 teams could be a comfortable fit. The idea would be to hold them during the spring and late fall, the so-called "shoulder seasons" before and after peak summer and fall tourism traffic. Even so, issues like traffic control, trash removal and recycling, parking, lodging and restrooms would have to be resolved.

Then there's the issue of who organizes and runs the tournaments. That's still being sorted out, but could ultimately be some sort of alliance of officials from the town, Riley Rink and area youth sports organizations rolled into a group or confederation, O'Keefe said.

"One thing that becomes clear is that it will have to be run by a very well-organized group — it can't just be volunteers," he said.

Managing the tournaments, recruiting the referees and other staff, along with police and parking attendants, will be challenges to be overcome, along with financing the projects with enough start-up money for marketing and other costs, according to a fact sheet distributed at one of the committee's meetings two weeks ago.

Jami Poe, the director of sales and marketing at The Taconic, one of the three new hotels either built or under construction that will add about 200 new rooms to the lodging mix in Manchester, and who attended the committee's recent meeting, said the tournament concept sounded like a great opportunity for Manchester that could put the town on the map for a new and different audience.

She anticipated that lodging properties could potentially offer special rates or packages for large groups of travelers at a time of year when other tourist traffic is at less than peak. Such events could also leverage the area's other attractions, she added.

However, they will also need to be organized and well-run, she said.

"It's a matter of doing it right out-of-the-gate," she said. "You have one chance to make a first impression."

The new fields are expected to see their first use this fall with the arrival of the autumn sports season at local schools. A 6th grade soccer tournament organized by the John Werner Soccer League, which covers a wide range of schools from nearby towns in New York state as far east as Wilmington might be the first tournament to "test the waters" at the new fields. The league will determine whether it will host the jamboree when it has a league meeting scheduled for August in Arlington, said Steve Houseman, one of the league's official.

"It's tentative but I can't imagine the league won't approve us going forward on these gorgeous fields," Houseman said.

But before that, it's likely the Burr and Burton Academy junior varsity and Manchester Youth soccer teams may have already broken the fields in, he said.

And before that, Applejack Field will have seen action provided by teams from the University of Vermont, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Middlebury and Williams College, along with teams from Southern Vermont College and SUNY Cobleskill, as well as Burr and Burton, part of an attempt to build the image of the town as a soccer center, O'Keefe said.

"The big question we've been asking over the past few years is 'what's the next big thing' — and maybe this it," he said.


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