Commentary: An economic engine worth supporting for Kent County

Nearly 10 years in the making, the Kent County Regional Sports Complex (DE Turf) has proven to be among the greatest economic generators that Kent County has ever experienced. In only 16 months of operation DE Turf has attracted 200,000-plus visitors from 33 states, Canada and New Zealand, resulting in more than 20,000 new hotel rooms booked.

Sport tourism is big business. According to “Sport Tourism: A State of the Industry Report 2017” by the National Association of Sports Commissions, “Visitor spending with sports events was $10.47 billion in 2016.” Other reports have valued the industry at $15.3 billion, the fastest growing segment in the travel industry. After eight years of collective research, hard work and determination, Kent County, its businesses and residents are reaping their share of this lucrative market because of DE Turf.

Recently the Delaware legislature passed a bill that will enable Kent County Levy Court — a public partner in the 501c3 nonprofit DE Turf — to enact up to a 3 percent lodging tax that would benefit the sports complex. In a brief period of time, DE Turf has been able to attract world-class tournaments, athletes and sports camps such as the recent football camp conducted by the New England Patriots’ Duron Harmon.

Cindy Small

DE Turf, through precise budgeting and mindful financial oversight by its small staff and board of directors, has generated enough revenue to run the facility, including payments toward its $20 million (construction) bond issuance. That said, sport tourism is highly competitive and getting more so all the time.

We need to ensure that DE Turf remains competitive among existing and future sport venues. Did you know that the ability to secure most tournaments is based on a venue’s ability to bid on those tournaments? Average tournament bid fees are $50,000 to $150,000.

So why would a venue put that level of funding into bidding on tournaments? Easy answer. Tournaments bring millions of dollars into the communities that host them. In the case of DE Turf, it’s a proven fact that in just 15 months, lodging establishments in Kent County and neighboring counties have reaped millions of dollars in revenue as a direct result of DE Turf (75 percent of room nights are booked inside Kent County).

Restaurants, retailers, medical facilities and service businesses are also benefiting with the huge influx of cash generated by DE Turf tournaments.

So what’s at issue? Common sense says if you have investments that are paying off, you should continue putting your money toward those investments. That is the position that legislators took when they enacted the bill allowing Kent County the ability to enact up to a 3 percent lodging tax on hotels in Kent County. Proceeds will provide DE Turf the necessary bid fees to keep the facility competitive.

A prime example is the USA Field Hockey National Festival. This event, which generates 10,000 hotel rooms during Thanksgiving week, generates $7 million in economic impact and will be hosted in Tampa, Florida’s brand new facility, funded largely by lodging tax.

Several of DE Turf’s competitors are funded by tourism taxes. Overland Park in Kansas benefits from a 3 percent hotel tax, as does Panama City Sports Park in Florida, River City Sportsplex in Richmond, Virginia, and Elizabethtown Sports Park in Kentucky. And new facilities are proposed for the Mid-Atlantic in Bowie, Maryland, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Because of the economic benefits from these regional and national events, the industry has become a pay-to-play system. Another example is the U.S. Lacrosse Youth Nationals that DE Turf hosted in August 2018. That event has now relocated to Pennsylvania because DE Turf did not have the proper funding resources. Chester County, Pennsylvania tax dollars financially supported that event. The DE Turf has identified $1 million in open bid fees, which could result in $30 million in economic impact to Kent County.

There’s been some recent discussion about directing the tax dollars to DE Turf. Some have asked whether it sets a precedent. To that end, the precedent has already been set.

Back in 1989 when Delaware first enacted its lodging tax, portions of that tax were earmarked for beach replenishment and the county tourism bureaus, excellent vehicles for reinvestment of tourism funds. Delaware’s 8 percent state lodging tax is shared four ways: 1 percent to beach replenishment; 1 percent to the county tourism bureaus; 1 percent to the Delaware Tourism Office; and the remaining 5 percent goes into Delaware’s general fund.

In many other cities across the country, taxes are levied to help support public infrastructure and sport venues similar to the DE Turf. In addition to lodging tax, many cities also enact a ticket tax on sporting events to pay for stadiums and sporting venues. Other visitor-related activities are also taxed, including air travel and even rental cars, and often that money is allocated to tourism.

It was the expectation that, when DE Turf was constructed, it would not be a burden to Kent County taxpayers. In fact, tourism as a whole reduces each Delaware household’s taxes by nearly $1,500 per year! So think of it this way — when visitors come to Delaware, why shouldn’t they contribute toward Delaware’s roadways and other public attractions such as museums, state parks and public sport venues such as DE Turf?

We maintain that it makes good sense to help keep taxes low for Delawareans, and generate funds to maintain our infrastructure and facilities.

The other argument — won’t more taxes deter visitors from coming to our area? We’re mindful of that and we agree that Kent County needs to be competitive. We’re still among the lowest in lodging tax in Delaware and surrounding states. Other municipalities such as Wilmington, Rehoboth Beach and Fenwick Island have enacted their own lodging tax, and typically add that money to city coffers, which is not a direct reinvestment in tourism as is proposed by DE Turf. In fact, these tax dollars will be re-invested directly back into generating more hotel rooms, thus increasing demand and average daily rates. DE Turf has heard from multiple local hoteliers that they support this tax because of this reinvestment.

As a community, we invite you to get behind the efforts of the DE Turf. The facility is the envy of counties and states all around us and one that will continue to inject money into our local businesses, provide a first-class sports venue for young athletes both local and regional, a better quality of life for local youth and families to enjoy as well as keep taxes low for Kent Countians. Let’s keep it this way.

Beyond economic development, DE Turf is a community facility. It keeps prices extremely affordable for local leagues, camps and clinics given the state-of-the-art facility. Kent County Levy Court is to be commended for helping to create an economic development initiative that does not cost the local taxpayers a dollar, yet achieves significant return on investments for local businesses.

Cindy Small is a native Delawarean and Kent County resident, former tourism director for Kent and Sussex counties, and a member of the DE Turf board of directors since its inception.

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