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Hospitality & Entertainment Kent County News

Kent County’s DE Turf puts Delaware on sports tourism map

Katie Tabeling
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FREDERICA — Back in 2008, the DE Turf Complex started like almost any project does in Delaware: a group of business leaders standing in a field with a vision.

In this case, the field was off Delaware Route 1 just south of the small town of Frederica and Bill Strickland was standing in that field with then-Delaware Tourism Office Director Linda Parkowski and then-Kent County Tourism Executive Director Cindy Small. Their vision was to create an incomparable sports tournament facility that would draw teams from all over the country to show off their skills – and draw in millions in tourism dollars.

Fast-forward to today and Strickland, now the board chairman of the DE Turf, stands in the same field, except this time it’s 84 acres of synthetic turf covering 12 athletic fields. The $24 million project opened in 2017, and it has been punching above its weight class since.

DE Turf Aerial Shot

The $24 million DE Turf facility has 12 turf fields, including five with stadium lights. Developers and government officials believe it will anchor significant business growth in the years to come. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NICOLAS GANLEY

“Looking back, I did think something special was going to happen here. DE Turf is so competitive because most of the facilities of this scale just have grass fields, and it’s right in the center of the Mid-Atlantic corridor,” Strickland told the Delaware Business Times. “So much blood sweat and tears went into this project, and frankly it was a project of love.”

With the support of the Kent County Levy Court, which leased the land for $1 per year for 60 years and offered funding with county bonds, and a $3.2 million state infrastructure grant, the DE Turf facility opened to great optimism that it would be a game changer for the county.

But while it is a draw for families and young athletes across the country, and trickling down to the tourism industry, it may be fueling the need for more development in an otherwise quiet part of Kent County.

By the numbers

DE Turf Board Chairman Bill Strickland stands in front of one of the 12 synthetic turf fields he and other Kent County officials worked to bring to Frederica. |
DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Sports tourism has been a driving force in travel spending, especially as high school-age athletes are looking for opportunities to shine and attract college-level recruiters.The National Association of Sports Commissions reported that sport tourism was an approximately $11.4 billion industry in 2020, including booked hotels, restaurant meals and shopping.

The first economic impact study of the DE Turf Complex estimated its economic impact at $18 million per year, based on hosting 10 regional sports tournaments a year. But when the study was refreshed — and increasing interest bumped the projections to 25 tournaments — that number grew to $25 million.

“The first tournament we booked was field hockey, and on the website you could see it’s locations: Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and Frederica,” Strickland said with a laugh.

The future looks even brighter with DE Turf Executive Director Angie Eliason, who started last May. Eliason has had a career in youth sports and served as the director of operations for the U.S. Youth Soccer before starting PRIME Professional Events. She was also recruited by Major League Soccer to organize their top tournaments, and with her contacts with tournament organizers, the hope is to draw in even bigger events and raise central Delaware’s profile in turn.

Eliason’s work is paying off. In mid-July, the DE Turf landed the USA Lacrosse men’s and women’s national teams for exhibition games, coinciding with the 2021 USA Lacrosse Youth Nationals. A record 80 girls’ lacrosse teams participated, and an estimated 30,000 people came to Frederica that week.

“We’re probably one of the best facilities in the country with turf. Lacrosse prefers it, and it’s about 70% of our current business. They’re all trying to get on it,” Eliason said.

‘Creating a draw’

Pinned with a 30-year loan from M&T Bank at a fixed rate of 3% and coupled with county bonds, DE Turf’s revenue has not turned out to be a huge windfall. The tax filings for the Kent County Regional Sports Complex Corp., the nonprofit that oversees the complex, reported $2.06 million in revenue in 2019. The year before that, revenue was $1.3 million, with expenses eating into almost half.

Even so, Strickland argues that the main point of the DE Turf was to throw a spotlight on Delaware in an arena many other states dream of reaching. Now that the DE Turf Complex is in its fifth year, he said the field is booked for 42 tournaments, bringing $75 million in economic impact to the heart of Delaware. 

Tournaments booked have more than doubled from its first year, and people are coming as far as the West Coast to compete.

“This was never about making the field itself profitable, this was about creating a draw. The reality is, without the land lease, we may not be able to get this done,” Strickland said. “But I firmly believe this is a recession-proof business. As a parent, you will do anything to support your child’s interests and opportunities, especially when there are scholarships on the line.”

But the next frontier will be fostering the private sector to create an experience for athletes and their families when they come to Delaware, Strickland said.

“We really have to be in this mindset that competition is looming and we need to find ways to keep people here,” he said.

Anchoring the attraction

From a marketing standpoint, the Delaware Tourism Office and Kent County Tourism see the DE Turf as an opportunity to showcase the best of Delaware. Liz Keller, the director of the Delaware Tourism Office, said she works closely with event organizers to connect them with hotels, but also ideas to explore the state. 

“One of the great opportunities we have is reaching first-time travelers. By providing the athletes and their families with travel ideas before they arrive it helps to expand on their experience in Delaware,” Keller said. “For many, it’s their first time, and we hope they will return for their next trip as well.”

DE Turf

A record number of 80 girls’ lacrosse teams competed on July 13 in the 2021 USA Lacrosse Youth Nationals. It marked one of the DE Turf complex’s biggest events to date. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

Kent County Tourism Executive Director Pete Bradley pointed out that central Delaware has the benefit of having the amenities of Dover like movie theaters and restaurants, but also nature trails at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The Killens Pond Water Park is also a favorite among visitors. 

“The DE Turf is really a fantastic anchor for us as it draws people who may not have ordinarily come here. Stop in any restaurant, and odds are you’ll see athletes in uniforms at a table,” Bradley said.

Right now the closest hotels to DE Turf are in Dover and Milford, but some families head as far south as the Delaware beaches. Eliason contracts with Travel Source of Baltimore to send tournament organizers hotel rooms, and some book up to 18 months in advance.

Beacon Hospitality Managing Director Chad Moore said while the Microtel in Milford opened for reservations in early June, it was able to start picking up business from sport tournaments 6 miles up the highway. But the hotel was able to pick up bookings from teams who make it longer than they thought they would.

The sports recruitment windows open around March, ramping up to July and continuing into late fall. But much like the seasonal business model, Moore said it was highly unlikely for a hotel to sustain itself on a few months of explosive business.

“A three-month driver isn’t enough for hotels at all, you need to have other ideas to support it. We have a hotel in Georgetown, and we see great business from Sports at the Beach, but there’s also the county seat that draws people for business,” he said.

Beacon Hospitality is developing a Microtel in Rehoboth Beach, and Moore said it may be the case that all three hotels may parse the sports tourism market.

“When you’re driving for hours to play at a tournament in central Delaware, it may not be a big deal to drive another hour to stay closer to the beach,” Moore said.

Sparking development

A new commercial development right across the highway may make that drive as short as across the highway from the DE Turf complex. Ashbury Park promises to deliver a 86-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel, a convenience store and a 30,000-square-foot retail space.

Land use lawyer John Pardee and his partners had been working on Ashbury Park when the Delaware Department of Transportation proposed an interchange there around 2008. Pardee later bought nearby land from DelDOT for $270,000 a decade later, a fraction of the price that the state paid for it.

Pardee declined to identify the partners on Ashbury Park, but that Michael Meoli of the Meoli Companies held the franchise for the Marriott Hotel. After infrastructure is in the ground, the hope is to open the hotel by spring 2023 with the retail and restaurants to follow.

“We were talking with blue-ribbon fast food restaurants and other convenience stores, but then COVID happened. Then it was just crickets,” Pardee said. “Every restaurant was focused on survival for a while, but we’re getting some calls now.”

Neighboring land surrounding the DE Turf Complex, sits mostly undeveloped but county and state officials are outlining the next steps forward. Last year, the Kent County Levy Court took the first steps in establishing a Transportation Improvement District to improve roads and other infrastructure to set up south Frederica as a tourist destination.

Meanwhile, large tracts of land sit ready for something to shake up the quiet corridor. The Meding family who owns the Meding & Son Seaford rezoned neighboring 20 acres to commercial in 2012, while another family that owns 24 acres south has their land zoned commercial. Kent County officials said no plans have been filed yet.

“I think in five years from now, Ashbury Park may be ready. But in 10 years from now, this area is going to look a lot different than it did before,” Pardee said.

Staying Competitive

As time wears on, more municipalities are exploring how to tap into the sports tourism business. In Maryland, Worcester County officials have seriously explored building a sports complex just north of Ocean City. Cecil County, Maryland has spent years developing the Calvert Regional Park into a major venue.

But Eliason said it’s hard to gauge apples and oranges. Those she has her eye on — the Proving Grounds in southern Pennsylvania and the Maryland Soccerplex — still have some grass fields while the DE Turf has all turf fields.

“Nobody has exactly what we have, it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she said. 

The state’s Fiscal Year 2020 Bond Bill also includes $1.9 million for stadium lights, so tournaments can continue at night and give the complex another advantage. It will also give locals a chance to play longer as well.

Eliason’s wish list also includes a half-length field for children to play and adult teams who don’t want to run the length of a whole field. Paved parking would also be key to manage the overflow of thousands of spectators, athletes and coaches.

“We’re sitting in a great position right now, we just have to keep spreading the word,” she said.

 

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