Some of those cows you see pasturing on land west of U.S. 1, south of Matanzas Woods Parkway, are going to have to look for more edible grass elsewhere: Palm Coast is about to sign an agreement with New Jersey-based Player Development Academy (PDA), a youth soccer organization, to build five or six soccer fields there and draw tournaments and similar events to the city.
The agreement would lease 65 acres to the academy for 25 years, with five-year extensions, at $10,000 a year, giving the academy exclusive use of the property except for four city-hosted tournaments a year. The academy could avoid paying the $10,000 if it were to bring at least two significant tournaments or similar events to the city. By “significant,” the city means the type of event that would result in the booking of at least 200 room nights in a calendar year.
The city would have no expenses. The only significant downside: the land is part of the Palm Coast Park Development of Regional Impact, a private development required to devote some of its land to Palm Coast for public park or recreational uses–and for entirely public uses. The academy would not be required to make that concession on its fields, which would be privately run. On the other hand, the city does not foresee the development actually constructing homes or the city itself having the means to develop a park there for years.
“You know better than anybody that the chances are this is going to stay an empty field, that’s great I guess for cows,” City Manager Jim Landon said, “but for many years to come. Here we have the private sector stepping up and saying, we’ll build it.”
Landon Beau Falgout, a senior planner and point man for the city’s economic development, portrayed securing the academy’s Florida home as a coup no different than securing a company. “This is our target industry here in Palm Coast,” Landon said, “a sports niche.”
The city, in conjunction with the county’s Tourist Development Council and the Flagler County School Board, enlarged and amplified the Indian Trails Sports Complex, which now has eight tournament-quality fields that attract soccer, lacrosse and other tournaments. Those events draw teams by the dozens or the score, on certain weekends. That fills hotel roms, restaurants, shops, it adds to the area’s sales tax revenue, and it spawns economic activity.
There was no mention of the 2014 World Cup, but the timing of the deal is such that the academy may be inaugurating its new fields around the same time as the world’s most popular sporting event, which usually triggers a surge in followers. The 2014 World Cup in Rio, in Brazil, will be the first time that the event will be held in the Americas since the United States hosted it in 1994. That event led to the creation of the Major League Soccer league. The Rio World Cup is expected to produce its own wave of activity.
The soccer academy idea dates back a little over a year from what, ironically, had been misstep by the city. The city’s parks department wanted to impose new fees on local clubs that used public fields, particularly to pay for field maintenance. That didn’t go over well with local clubs. They protested, taking their displeasure to the city council. The council forced the administration to retreat and come up with a more constructive alternative. The administration did, essentially making a deal with local clubs: it wouldn’t charge fees for field maintenance, but the clubs would have to bring tournaments to the city,Landon said, “so that people from outside can help pay for these fields, and we’ll work and we’ll pay for additional fields.”
The city also created a sports alliance with the TDC. The school board provided additional land at Indian Trails that the city developed into quality fields. More tournaments were drawn to the city. “It has taken off beyond my expectations,” Landon says, crediting, among others, Fred Lewers, also known locally as “Mr. Baseball”–Lewers was a 2011 recipient of a national volunteer award for his involvement in youth sports–and Rich Weber, a local representative of FC United, one of the soccer organizations that brings tournaments to Palm Coast. Lewers had been a critic of the city’s fee plan. He became a key figure in making connections in new Jersey that, along with Weber’s, led to the interest in Palm Coast from the soccer academy.
“The next thing I know we not only had a New Jersey connection but we had a Palm Coast connection,” Landon said. “It became a typical industrial recruitment, because they have options too,” as the academy was looking for a place to expand. “We tried to make sure that Palm Coast was that place.”
Falgout, himself a soccer referee and coach who travels the state and witnesses the economic impact of youth tournament, said the key for Palm Coast to improve its standing as a tournament venue is the number of quality fields it can make available. The eight teams at the Indian Trails Sports Complex are fine, but with eight fields the city is limiting itself to state tournaments. With 12 to 16 fields, the city can be attractive to regional and national tournaments. That’s what the addition of the Player Development Academy along U.S. 1 will enable.
“So really,” Falgout said, “the addition of six fields opens up the opportunity for Palm Coast not only for Palm Coast but all kinds of different types of sporting events, because you’re really looking for those fields in one location.” A path would link the eight fields at Indian Trails to the new fields along U.S. 1, making the 14-field concept possible.
The Player Development Academy will develop the fields at its own expense, and provide its own maintenance.
“There’s nothing we can do to make them build the fields, except for if they don’t build five fields within two years, the lease becomes null and void and we keep the property,” Landon said. “Because we have no skin in the game, there’s no up-front money.”
Council members were enthusiastic, with a few questions about the city’s own liabilities, which Landon said were financially nonexistent.
“If we can point to any success in economic development, it’s what we have done to promote sports events in this area, it’s done more to plow money into our economy than bringing a new Mercedes plant or something like that,” council member Bill McGuire said.
“We need to show a very clear connection between these events and economic impact, economic development for our community,” Netts said. He referred to the federal stimulus of 2009 and thereafter, but was doubtful of the stimulus’ benefit. He wants proof that such stimuli will be realized. But he also wants to ensure that all local hotels—high end, not so high end—are promoted, and that all will benefit.
The more likely scenario, council members were told, is that if the sports-as-economic-development notion continues to grow, more hotels will have to be built.