Destination for Sports
Creating Multi-Use Sports Facilities
By Joe Bush
Multi-use sports facilities are all the rage these days, especially because they can generate revenue.
There are a few reasons a municipality, public university or private university might want an area devoted to athletic endeavors—community growth and demand, renovation or replacement of existing facilities, the wish to attract tourism dollars through tournaments. If planned correctly, the money made from visitors boosts community commerce, and field or court rental can help with the expense and operation of the facilities.
"There's a bigger focus on sports as an economic driver across the country," said David Nardone, sport group leader at Stantec. "Space is at a premium, so (facilities) with synthetic surfaces are valued. You can look at cost of use, uses for your dollar, and synthetic surfaces start to make a lot of sense. Up front it might cost three times as much, but you get so many more uses so it definitely pays off.
"It also opens up rentals to help support the facility. Probably not going to pay for it outright, but it definitely can help support the facility."
Nardone mentioned just one calculation entities must make before approaching companies like Stantec, which take sports facility projects from idea to completion: Do you pay more for the synthetic surface that is more durable for heavier use, or less for natural grass, which athletes and coaches prefer but are higher maintenance and more sensitive to use and weather?
These are not small decisions. Dean Thomas, of landscape architecture and planning firm Dalhoff Thomas Design Studio, estimates for baseball and softball fields, a general range of $750,000 to $1 million per field. For soccer and multipurpose fields, Thomas said the numbers are generally $500,000 to $750,000 per field.
Thomas said those figures are overall costs that include design fees, engineering, earthwork, utilities, infrastructure, parking lots, hardscapes, buildings, lighting, common areas, landscape and irrigation. Prices will vary depending on the use of the facility, sizes of fields, earthwork requirements and wage rates, he said.
Thomas said some of the cost has nothing to do with the fields themselves. "Design of sports parks has become more 'high-end,'" Thomas said. "With the number of kids involved in competitive travel baseball, the competition to attract teams to your facility has increased. We have found that travel teams want to play at different facilities, and are willing to spend their money to play at nice, well maintained sport parks.
"Branding has also become a key to the design of many of these facilities. Ultimately the condition of the fields is the most important factor, but parks are looking for that extra identifying element that will make their facility memorable, and stand out in the minds of the visitors. We have seen the demand for better quality and more amenities steadily increase. Technology has driven sport parks to provide Wi-Fi. An increased awareness of the dangers of sun exposure has driven the demand for shade structures."
Surfaces are still king though, said Thomas, and where affordable, demand resources for the best of care. From the maintenance and management side, more municipalities are hiring full-time staff specifically committed to running a sports park, rather than have the park under the management of the overall parks director, he said. This staff often includes a planning and marketing director, turfgrass manager, assistant director, and three to four crew members who stay at the park full-time.
Professional Help, Community Input
Thomas said the most important advice for those considering a multi-use sports facility is to hire a professional to help guide you through the process. The planning phase is not the time to pinch pennies, if there is one at all.
Multi-use sports facilities are all the rage these days, especially because they can generate revenue.
"These are exciting projects with a lot of variables involved, and it is important to have someone involved who can coordinate all the moving pieces," Thomas said. "A professional will be able to provide a plan, help you avoid mistakes, put together a realistic schedule, create enthusiasm for the project, and calculate a preliminary construction cost estimate for the sports facility.
"In many cases, we recommend that an economic impact analysis be prepared. We would also recommend getting public input. If the public feels like they are involved in the process, they will be much more likely to support the project."
Larry Ryan, a principal at RJM Design Group, said one of his firm's single biggest area of specialization is community participation workshops. RJMDG visits a prospective area and helps craft a plan that represents the consensus of how best to develop and utilize a site. Ryan said that sometimes it's simple—everyone is in general agreement as to the nature of the project—and sometimes there are various factions that are entrenched in their own objectives, to the exclusion of everybody else.
"What we try to do is go through all the parties that might express dissatisfaction," he said. "We want them involved early on and maybe to participate, hopefully to understand the various challenges and see how the final plan is a by-product of that process and evolution.
"It's very challenging these days to develop a project; there are a lot of experts out there, a wide variety of user groups, and everybody's competing for limited space, limited field time and court time. The process of evaluating those user groups and requirements for their area of expertise, their field size, number of fields, all that stuff, is all put into this process so that you can begin to craft a solution that's going to be as inclusive as possible and work for the overall community."
The Right Site
Ryan said before someone calls RJMDG to start the partnership, there has likely already been a high-level meeting concerning a piece of property that may or may not be available. From the city council or city manager level, RJMDG is asked to take a look at the site. Ryan said expectations can be a far cry from reality.
We would recommend getting public input. If the public feels like they are involved in the process, they will be much more likely to support the project.
"'Can you get 37 ballfields on this site? Ryan said. "We'll look at it, and 'No, you can get 12.'"
Ryan wouldn't joke if it weren't true. People forget about parking and access, restrooms and walkways, warmup areas and out-of-bounds space and seating. A yield study gently reminds all involved what is possible with the needs stated, goals desired and space available.
"A yield study is just trying to land the general spaceship in the right hemisphere," Ryan said. "This is a real thing. There's no access here, you got to take everyone through a residential neighborhood, and they're not going to like that. Could you weather that type of outcry from the community? It's more sharing of information, a better way to illuminate those factors that come into appropriate design."
Ryan said even if the prospective client needs some time to recover from the harsh reality of the yield study, they usually return with a new plan, because the original impetus for a new facility is still pressing. There are more teams needing practice and game time than fields, and so neighboring communities are targeted, for example.
"'We should be taking care of our own: What do we have to do? Do we have to buy land? What other opportunities are there? Can we be more aggressive?'" Ryan said. "Very rarely does anyone ever go away. They go away like boomerangs; they go re-tool and come back.
"Their need isn't going away. It's just a matter of sharing the information with the right people so they can continue to pursue, re-target their emphasis to accommodate those needs they're feeling pressed with on a daily business. Every time they go to the produce section they get asked by somebody, 'Hey, when are we going to get these fields?' It doesn't go away for them, ever."
Steven Flanagan, a principal at LPA Inc., said there are rules of thumb interested parties should consider to help them visualize realistically what their land can fit for the most popular sports, soccer and the diamond sports. First, soccer complexes of 20 fields, the size needed for tournaments, need at least 100 acres.
For outdoor sports, the path of the sun has to be taken into account and the fields oriented accordingly.
"Both teams have to look into the sun and can take advantage of winds," said Flanagan. "Ideally, you want your long sports to run north-south so that the long side is facing east and west. Baseball wants the batter looking northeast when they're in the batting position so they're never really looking into the sun.
"When you get into the four baseball/softball field complexes, from a logistical and management standpoint, ideally you want all the backstops to back up to each other, a four-pod of fields with the center area where there's a concession stand. A lot of times for convenience of the program and also for land planning, you see that configuration and it's OK recreationally, and it's OK for night games."
Growing and Growing
Nardone said the sports facility industry has recovered along with the rest of the economy. "It's definitely growing and strong from our perspective," Nardone said. "We're seeing it on the public side; we're seeing it on the private side."
Flanagan said projects can range from as simple as one multipurpose field with parking and basic amenities, to as detailed as fields next to buildings for indoor sports as well as locker rooms, showers, and rooms for meetings and instruction. He said regardless of the scope, public and private stakeholders should be cautious who they approach for help.
"Be wary of carpetbag contractors who say, 'I can install three fields for half a million dollars,'" Flanagan said. "They're grossly inadequate. It'll be a solution you'll have problems with and will have to replace quickly.
"There are contractors out there that's all they do, install these fields. They have the technology, equipment and experience. You can really mess this up if it's the first time you're doing it. Make sure you have a contractor that has experience doing quality work."
RJM Design Group was in charge of a 57-acre award-winning sports park in Lake Forest, Calif., that took five years from start to finish. The park features five diamonds, a 27,000-square-foot rec center and gymnasium, classrooms, two restroom and concession buildings, 38 sports field lights, two synthetic turf soccer fields, two outdoor basketball courts, eight gazebo picnic structures, two playgrounds and more than 500 parking spaces. Each diamond has two bullpens, and soft toss cages to warm up batters. There is terraced spectator seating.
Ryan said two aspects of the project stood out; one was that despite its size and number of amenities, a person can get anywhere in the park without having to cross a vehicular drive or parking lot.
"Little Johnny playing on one field could go all the way over to the other side to see his sister playing on another field on his Razr, walking or on his bike and never have to worry," Ryan said. "That's the kind of influence we would like to have on our projects if possible, where you take the recreational ability to a higher level, but you also take the site development and relationships to a higher level."
He said the project was also notable because of the flexibility of not just his company but the city. There was some doubt as to the availability of some of the land, so the master plan had to account for the possibility of a smaller area. The project needed to work with either size, said Ryan, because the city had to satisfy its citizens' demands for the space needed from their sports programs.
"Well into the project it was determined all the parcels were going to fit," he said. "We were able to look at the plan, and it was determined before the final drawings were done that if we flipped where the diamond fields were, and we took the soccer fields and flipped them, that would allow us to really craft the vehicular access and the relationships of the parking lots would allow people to have convenient parking to all the features.
"You're only as good as your client. The city was very agile."
Ryan calls Lake Forest Park "a real true community park." Controlled by the city, it serves groups that play baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse. Ryan said those considering a multipurpose sports facility should be prepared for finding more demand than the initial survey discovered.
"Folks you didn't realize you had in your community, they see a potential for field time," said Ryan. "You build it and they'll come, and they come out of the woodwork."
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