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Local authority emphasizing economic benefits athletic activities bring to the area

By Staff | Mar 2, 2009

The florescent lights, drab colors and tight confines of the conference room at Lee County’s Economic Development Office are in stark contrast to the blues, greens and wide expanses of the baseball and soccer fields spread throughout the area.

The people gathered in this room make up the Horizon Council – the business and community leaders who make decisions that affect the jobs and lives of nearly 1 million people.

Recently they were listening intently to Jeff Mielke, director of the county’s Sports Authority, who expounded on the economic benefits of sports on Lee county.

There are the Everblades, of course, the Firecats and the Miracle, three organizations that play their part in the Lee County sports universe.

But Mielke was talking about something else entirely. He was bringing into focus a picture that, six years prior, was fuzzy, unattended, forgotten.

Most Horizon Council members were surprised to learn that amateur sports has an equal, if not greater, presence than spring training baseball, with the combination of the two having over $100 million of direct and indirect economic impact to Lee County.

While that number might not threaten to eclipse the numbers associated with beaches and the islands, Mielke’s message to the council is clear: sports has become a viable and necessary piece of the Lee County economic engine, one that could grow exponentially over the next three decades.

“It really surprises me, six years later, how few people know about our authority and what it is we do,” Mielke said. “Our sports business is significant.”

The Sports Authority was started six years ago to focus on luring amateur sporting events to Lee County. With spring training lasting roughly 45 days, the fields were virtually left empty after the pros packed their bags. The warm weather continued to sell hotel rooms to sun worshipers, not to baseball, softball and soccer players.

That’s changed greatly in the six years since the inception of the Sports Authority, now responsible for selling 70,000 rooms a year, on average.

According to Mielke, 2008 was the authority’s most successful year to date, netting 82 amateur sporting events, up from 66 in 2007.

Of those 82 events, eight had an economic impact of over $1 million, with two topping the $8 million mark.

Amateur sports now sells rooms for nine months out of the year, keeping a steady influx of new and returning visitors flowing.

Mielke said he’d like to know how many of those visitors become vacationers, and in turn become residents of Lee County, adding yet again to the economic drive.

“What we can’t measure right now is how many times people come back to Lee County after their first visit,” Mielke said.

Over the last half decade or so, the Sports Authority has morphed into a spring training liaison of sorts, one that now is poised to help entice a third team to the county.

With the new home, and cost, of the forthcoming Red Sox stadium still uncertain, county leaders have set their sights on luring the Baltimore Orioles away from Broward County on Florida’s east coast. If successful, Baltimore would net another $25 million annually for the county.

Lost amid the swirl of new stadium and pro baseball talk, however, is the possibility of building a state-of-the-art USA Swimming aquatic facility, one that could possibly earn another $35 million for the county, though Mielke warned those numbers are purely speculative at this point.

The aquatic enter has been tossed around for the last five years, most recently attached to the proposed “mega-complex” which would include the new Red Sox stadium and a possible FGCU football stadium.

Whether attached to the complex or built separately, the idea of an aquatic center seems to have full support from around the county.

“There’s only four facilities like this in the country,” said former county commissioner, and Fort Myers Beach Chamber President John Albion. He has long been a champion of the project.

“You have to look at the economic attraction of the thing … what’s the national exposure worth? Its just huge,” he said.

If built, the aquatic center could host Olympic time trials, NCAA and high school championships. Olympic and NCAA events would undoubtedly draw national television coverage, offering the kind of exposure that tourism development boards usually pay for.

The cost and funding source for building an aquatic center for Lee is still up in the air, but Albion said the facility doesn’t have to be attached to the Red Sox to be successful, it merely has to be built here in Lee County.

Albion warned, though, that the time frame for the project is indeed running out, as USA Swimming is poised to make a move on another location should a better opportunity present itself.

“There are other areas that are competing for dollars for this facility … it’s going somewhere, and they’re (USA Swimming) intending to do something,” Albion said. “But they have chosen us. They didn’t say ‘Who wants us’? They said, ‘We want to be in this area and we need help from the community.'”

With most sporting events and facilities held on the other side of the bridge, the most obvious question for the Cape is: what does sports do for us?

Most, including Mielke, argue that any sporting event raises the profile of Lee county, in turn raising the Cape’s profile in the process.

Cape Councilmember Dolores Bertolini, who also sits on the Tourism Development Council, generally agrees with this line of thought, but wishes the new Red Sox facilities wouldn’t be built in south Lee County.

Yet she praised the idea of building the new stadium, as well as the proposed aquatic facility, saying her position on the Cape City Council doesn’t change her larger view of the county.

“it may not impact the Cape as much as it does Fort Myers and other cities. The further south it goes the further out of touch it is with Cape Coral,” Bertolini said. “But I have to look beyond Cape Coral. I have to look at the entire county. I wish it weren’t so far south, but that’s where they chose to do it.”

At the heart of the rise of Lee County sports is the number of hotel rooms sold. Like any other tourist-driven initiative, more room nights translates into more bed taxes, which are used to fund beach renourishment, recreation-themed construction projects, and the new Red Sox stadium, among others.

Inland hotels often struggle, even during the peak of season to sell rooms, and in the Cape it’s no different.

Dominick Soricelli, director of sales at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Southeast 47th Terrace, said the Cape’s abundant soccer and baseball fields position the city as a prime location for sporting events.

“Sports really do help us inland hotels. There’s no fields at the beach,” he said. “Sports marketing needs to stay, it’s something Cape Coral needs to get behind.”

Soricelli admits sales are off during the start of spring training, but stands by his assertion that Cape Coral must entwine itself with sports like the rest of Lee County.

“One thing the Cape needs to do is, we need to embrace Lee County. We need to work together, we need this synergy,” Soricelli said. “I don’t think people are looking at the big picture.”

The big picture was indeed Mielke’s quest at the Horizon Council meeting. Most council members appeared generally surprised by Mielke’s presentation, as representatives from Sanibel and Lee Building Industry Association touted the Sports Authority’s efforts.

Horizon Council Chair John Wiest added the kids of Lee County might benefit the most from the heightened exposure of Lee’s sports presence, saying scouts and coaches are now finding their way to the county to discover new talent.

Wiest added that his own children, who are baseball players, have had the chance to meet with those scouts and coaches.

But Wiest probably summed up the thoughts of the entire Horizon Council, if not the county, about the true impact sports has had when he looked at the figures Mielke presented and said, “Wow. I had no clue about these numbers.”