Traverse City News and Events

$10M In Sports Funding Coming: Is Indoor Traverse City Sports Complex Next?

By Beth Milligan | Dec. 29, 2018

$10 million in state funding is headed to northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula to create a regional sports commission – an initiative that dovetails with an effort by Traverse City Tourism to explore opening a year-round indoor sports complex in Traverse City.

Governor Rick Snyder signed off Friday on two supplemental spending bills totaling $1.3 billion for numerous projects throughout the state, including road upgrades, contamination clean-up, and education initiatives. The bills – approved earlier this month by state lawmakers – also include funding for community projects throughout Michigan, including $10 million to establish the Northern Michigan Regional Tourism and Sports Fund and to create a Great Lakes Sports Commission.

The program – which the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce aggressively lobbied Lansing to fund – will focus on “improving or developing high-level athletic and recreational facilities and events across northern Michigan that promote sports, recreation, and tourism across the region,” according to the Chamber. Chambers from Benzie County, Petoskey, Gaylord, Cadillac, Manistee, and Marquette also advocated for creating the sports commission.

The leadership of the sports commission is anticipated to be made up of community representatives from across northern Michigan and the U.P., who will help review grant applications and decide how to distribute the $10 million for projects. The commission, targeted to get up and running in 2019, could also seek out additional one-time or recurring funding sources to expand the program’s reach, and act as an advocate and promoter of sports and recreational activities in northern Michigan.

TC Chamber Director of Government Relations Kent Wood says that when it comes to spending funds, the focus will be on “infrastructure upgrades that have a likelihood of bringing in high-caliber events and recreational opportunities.” Examples that have been cited include renovating the Pine Mountain Ski Jump in Iron Mountain and Copper Peak in Ironwood; in Traverse City, projects could range from upgrading the VASA Trail to developing infrastructure for the new annual Ironman event to improving field and rink facilities to attract more baseball, hockey, and soccer tournaments.

The program could also help fund another long-discussed project in Traverse City: a year-round, indoor sports complex. Traverse City Tourism hired a consulting firm earlier this year to conduct a feasibility study on whether there is a need for such a facility in the area, how much it would cost to construct, and if it would be financially sustainable. The firm’s results are expected in January. But Traverse City Tourism President/CEO Trevor Tkach says preliminary findings “prove there is enough demand to run a cash-positive business if the facility gets built.”

“The caveat being,” he continues, “you have to raise capital to build the facility. It’s hard to determine whether or not the facility could fund its own debt service. Likely the best approach would be using different funding strategies: partnering with someone on the land, partnering with someone on fundraising, potentially getting a private management firm or investor to come in. We’re trying to get to real numbers rather than anecdotal evidence so we can have a legitimate assessment (of the need)."

Numerous community groups have clamored for a facility that would allow athletes to train and practice year-round in northern Michigan and that could host major indoor tournaments regardless of the season or weather. Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer (TBAYS) has rallied behind the idea; Grand Traverse County resident Brenda DeKuiper also recently initiated conversations with county leaders about using vacant land on Keystone Road to build an indoor facility. Tkach believes the project would be an ideal candidate to receive some measure of funding through the new sports commission.

“The research we’ve done has said the region could use it,” he says. “This will definitely plead a good case for Traverse City getting some dollars to enhance a resource that would be beneficial to the community and enhance tourism in a time of the year when we need it.”

How much funding will be available to Traverse City versus other communities through the new sports commission and fund remains to be seen. That level could be impacted by board representation: While TC Chamber CEO Doug Luciani was originally targeted as a commission member, he has since announced his resignation from the Chamber. Tkach says he would like to see Wood serve in Luciani’s place, a role Wood says he would be glad to assume if offered. “In terms of having Traverse City representation (on the sports commission), there’s a very good likelihood of that,” Wood says. “We are going to be well-positioned through some of the local work that’s already happening, both now and into the future.”

Both Tkach and Wood emphasize that while the program is meant to increase sports activity and recreational tourism, the greatest benefit will not be to visitors but to local residents. Tkach says the sports complex feasibility study shows that while an indoor center could help attract off-season business, its year-round local usage that would make the project sustainable. 

Wood agrees. He points to recent upgrades at Centre ICE Arena made to keep the Detroit Red Wings training camp and prospect tournament in Traverse City as an example of how sports infrastructure investments made for economic development and tourism reasons primarily benefit residents. “That rink is used year-round by residents for hockey, ice skating, curling…they all get the benefit (of the upgrades),” he says. “The same would be true for something like upgrading the VASA trail. The big splashy events get the attention...but the most important impact of the infrastructure is on the residents.”

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