Lafayette is betting $60 million on sports tourism.
In the works are superparks for softball and soccer tournaments at Brown Park and Moore Park and a state-of-the-art indoor sports facility at Beaullieu Park for pickleball, basketball, volleyball and more.
This would arguably be the largest investment in Lafayette’s economic development infrastructure since LUS Fiber. The promise is they will not only improve quality of life for residents and make Lafayette a more attractive place to live, but that they will also attract more tourists to come and spend their money here and spur follow-on development of adjacent properties to create more jobs.
It’s a wonderful vision I wish I could believe in. But I don’t.
Not that I think it’s altogether a bad idea, I just don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze, or that it’s the best way to spend $60 million. We can’t afford to take risks on initiatives that feel like luxuries when we have more basic needs to address.
Let me walk you through my thinking.
These facilities don’t pay for themselves
As I’ve written about previously, other sports complexes in Lafayette Parish require ongoing operating subsidies from dedicated taxes. The city of Lafayette doesn’t have enough dedicated tax revenues to cover the likely subsidies these new facilities will require. At least not without gutting the amount of money we spend on our other parks.
Even when facilities like this are cash flow positive they can still lose money. Take Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana. It’s a wildly successful sports facility, generating roughly $6 million in revenue against $3 million in expenses. Yet when you factor in $3 million of depreciation, it dips into the red. And you can’t ignore depreciation. THat reflects the money it’ll cost to eventually rebuild or make major repairs to the facility in the future.
So rather than just seeing these new facilities as assets, I see them as liabilities. Liabilities that we arguably can’t afford as a city unless we’re willing to increase the taxes we pay for parks and rec.
They’ll require more and more investment
It’s important to acknowledge that we can’t build these facilities and be done. They will always require more money to be spent on them in the future. If they’re not successful, we’ll need to add to them to make them more competitive. If they are successful, we’ll need to add to them because they’ve proven they work.
So it’s not just the $60 million that we’re spending now; it’s the millions of additional dollars that will inevitably end up getting dumped into these facilities in the future. And all of this is money we could spend on anything else the city needs. Instead of having better roads or drainage or public buildings or other parks or other potentially more impactful economic development infrastructure, we’ll have a few ever-expanding parks.
Their impact on economic development is suspect
The primary economic development benefit of the proposed indoor sports facility is tourism. A study projects the facility will generate a minimum of 30,000 additional room nights in Lafayette’s hotels and motels. While that might sound impressive, at a $90 average room rate it represents $2.7 million of additional revenue. That’s just 3% of Lafayette’s $90 million hotel/motel market.
Then there’s the promise of sports tourists spending their money elsewhere in Lafayette while in town. But this study that surveyed sports tourist parents found that typically they didn’t extend their stays in cities or do anything outside of the tournaments that brought them to town. So this impact may be limited.
Local hotels, motels and restaurants may be better off if we just gave them the cash directly, given the cost of interest on the debt that Lafayette will have to take on to build out these complexes.
This is a risky investment
Not only is there all the risk associated with building and operating facilities, there’s also a fair amount of market risk. Sports tourism is highly competitive. Lafayette is playing catch up with communities across the country and in our own backyard.
We’re betting big on demand while everyone else is. In other words, just because we build it, there’s no guarantee they’ll come.
Perhaps what bugs me most about spending this much money on sports tourism is that I see so many more valuable options for this kind of spending.
From an economic development perspective, we could be spending that money on affordable housing, or on incubator spaces for new businesses on the Northside, or on improving and expanding the facilities that support our cultural tourism industry.
From a community perspective, we could be spending that money helping kids who are homeless, housing insecure and hungry. Instead of helping kids who can afford to be sports tourists to access nicer facilities without having to drive so far.
When it comes to local government spending big money like this, there should be two priorities: fixing problems and creating opportunities. And on both of these, this focus on sports tourism falls short — especially at such a hefty price tag.