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Feature Story

Complex crazy

7/3/2024

The indoor field at the RecPlex has hosted youth sports tournaments ranging from basketball to volleyball, wrestling and more.

Since 2021, several Des Moines suburbs have opened massive, multi-million-dollar, multi-use sports complexes. In West Des Moines, development costs for the MidAmerican Energy RecPlex were close to $60 million in 2021, according to the Business Record. Waukee launched Triumph Park in cooperation with Confluence and received positive shoutouts from Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2022. In 2023, two more suburbs opened their sports complexes. The development costs for GrimesPlex in Grimes, which was initially a private venture that became a public one, and the Gregg Young Sports Campus in Norwalk were both upwards of $30 million. 

Several other communities have either had proposals or groundbreakings of their own. In Johnston, Ignit Sports and Fitness expects to have construction completed by the end of 2025 with an estimated cost of $55 million. Waukee is expected to gain another complex in addition to Triumph Park. The Kettlestone Central Sports Complex is part of a $350-million development, expected to include two 65,000-square-foot buildings with six full-size basketball courts with stadium seating. Urbandale residents, on the other hand, bucked the trend when they voted against the proposed $43 million UPlex in 2023.

Without mentioning the existing sports complexes in the Des Moines area, that’s six multi-use community sports complexes that have been either proposed, broke ground, or built in the last three years — all of which have been, or largely will be, funded by public dollars. 

Add in the soccer and baseball complexes like Prairie Ridge, Spring Creek Soccer Complex and Hidden Valley, not to mention local communities’ sports fields, and, at a glance, the market seems saturated. Is there a need for more sports complexes, and are they worth the tens of millions of dollars in investment? 

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The demand

GrimesPlex is a 50-acre synthetic turf multi-sport complex. It is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the Midwest.

City of Grimes Marketing and Communications Manager Whitney Tucker says there certainly is a demand.

“Each of these facilities are starting to have their own niche. We have soccer and baseball here, and they have hockey and basketball over at the RecPlex. So, there’s plenty of demand and plenty of unique opportunities,” Tucker said. “It really is such a big part of the Midwest culture. That demand is there to support multiple facilities. Our tournaments are booked every weekend, and, during the fall, we have practices practically every weeknight.”

Des Moines Parks and Recreation Director Benjamin Page agrees.

“I 100% echo that. We won’t see (more) anytime soon because these things are expensive, and they usually take public money to build,” Page said. “Right now, what you’re seeing is, COVID did what 9/11 did for law enforcement and public safety. It put them on the map and gave them more funding to take on those types of things.”

Shayne Ratcliff, the general manager of the RecPlex, says that there’s more than enough demand to accommodate the growing number of complexes.

“I don’t know that Des Moines will have too many for the market, but I would say we were definitely lacking in terms of recreational and sports facility opportunities,” Ratcliff said. “What appears to be a boom in building is simply a ‘catch-up’ to what other metro areas have had for many years before us. Before new complexes like the RecPlex, many users utilized school and church gymnasiums in order to meet the demand, but that is becoming less and less with the arrival of sports-dedicated complexes.”

Ratcliff says these complexes not only take the burden off schools and churches, but they also lighten the load for existing outdoor complexes.

“The GrimesPlex and Gregg Young are simply large outdoor complexes that will help to relieve the pressures currently felt on natural grass complexes throughout the metro,” Ratcliff said. “The outdoor synthetic turf market will eventually become saturated as more of these complexes are being considered, but the ability to play year-round indoors with no concern for weather will keep the demand for synthetic outdoor fields high for many years to come.”

Brian Becker, Grimes parks and recreation director, along with Page, Tucker and Ratcliff, agree that the complexes they manage have no problem filling their fields, rinks and courts — and all mentioned that they have had to turn some away.  

Biswa Das, PhD., associate professor and extension specialist for the Department of Community and Regional Planning, says there is indeed a demand for sports facilities.

“Central Iowa is growing at a much faster pace compared to the rest of Iowa. Ankeny, Waukee and other cities are experiencing rapid growth. The local demographics also point to the influx of young families with children. Further, the success of existing recreational amenities also points at a growing appetite in the region for more such opportunities,” Das said.

Urbandale residents overwhelmingly voted against the building of the U-Plex in March of 2023. If passed, the bond referendum required to fund the complex would have increased property taxes by roughly 12%. The city said that, for a $200,000 home, that would be $119 each year for the next 20 years. The planned location at 152nd Street near Meredith Drive would have placed the complex on the far west side of Urbandale, making it close to existing complexes, and not enough residents were convinced to invest their tax dollars into the project. 

 

Recouping the costs and economic impact

The MidAmerican Energy RecPlex is able to host events such as the Turkey Cup on its full-scale hockey rink.

Each of these recently built complexes was funded to some extent by public dollars. According to the Business Journal, “$59.8 million, including $16.5 million in city bonds backed by future local option sales tax revenue, $16.4 million in city bonds backed by future hotel-motel tax revenue, $12.4 million in corporate and individual donations and pledges, and a mix of other grants, loans and tax revenue,” went into the development costs for the RecPlex. 

“Since opening, the RecPlex has generated over $40 million in direct economic impact spending in and around the local community, solidifying the return on the public investment in the project,” Ratcliff said. 

Ratcliff says the reason the RecPlex has been able to have a successful return on investment is its ability to pull from multiple revenue streams. 

“Currently, our revenue is comprised of approximately 50% from surface rentals, 20% from programming, 20% from concessions and 10% from advertising, leases and other extras,” Ratcliff said. 

The RecPlex has also benefitted the businesses in the surrounding area.

“This past year, we had over 1 million visitors come through the RecPlex doors, and they are visiting the local businesses on a regular basis. We receive calls from the local restaurants regularly asking for our events schedule so they can staff accordingly, as they are getting flooded with business whenever we have events,” Ratcliff said. 

It’s a similar story for the GrimesPlex.

“In terms of economic impact, we had a third-party analysis done, starting from where we made the decision to take over the project. It predicted we’d have an impact of $11 million a year,” Tucker said. 

With the costs of the GrimesPlex estimated at $31 million, Tucker and Becker agree that the complex will make a positive return on that investment after three to four years of operation. 

“Our residents in the greater community are getting this facility for 40 cents on the dollar versus if we didn’t have the land donation and a $12 million donation. So, that puts us in a pretty unique situation that we’re able to bring this caliber of facility for a much smaller cost than we would have if we had just started on our own,” Tucker said. 

“Recreation complexes are not new. They have been around in many places for a long time. There is a renewed sense that these venues are a good investment for communities,” Das said. “Usually, they are done as public-private partnerships, with significant contributions from the private sector, foundations and philanthropists. While sports and recreation are the major goals, these facilities also serve as major contributors to the local economy. Each of the complexes is unique in their scale and scope. As we would expect, the investments also vary widely.”

Das mentioned that the complexes being built are not just a trend for the Des Moines metro. He names the TBK Bank Sports Complex in Bettendorf and the JBS Sports Center in southeast Iowa as other examples. 

“Cities usually try to maximize the non-public portion of the funds necessary in an effort to keep the city and county portions smaller. For example, the RecPlex received about $10 million in donations, thereby restricting the cost to the city. Given that almost all of them (sports complexes) generate varying revenues, the time taken to pay off borrowing varies. The time required to make money could vary with the scale of operations, and it is hard to provide a defined timeline. In conversations with local officials, it is my understanding that it could range anywhere from five to 10 years,” Das said. 

Critics of these sports complexes point to the low tax revenue that they generate. According to The Des Moines Register, property taxes account for 50-60% of Des Moines’ revenue. If these complexes are to be the driving economic forces their managers and directors claim they will be, development needs to continue around them to generate more property taxes for the cities. Otherwise, the burden to pay them off could fall on taxpayers. Metro-area municipalities could end up with the same headache that Westfield, Indiana, is experiencing with its youth sports complex, Grand Park. The complex has succeeded in bringing visitors and exposure to the town, but it continues to struggle in paying back its bond payments. The $80 million that Westfield owes towers above the totals paid for central Iowa complexes, but the concern remains. 

 

Working together

“In addition to competitions, we have hosted special events with several businesses and used it as a training center for local healthcare organizations as well as other City Departments,” Shayne Ratcliff said.

Previously, Des Moines didn’t have the capabilities to support large-scale tournaments. Now that the surrounding communities are building these complexes, working together could see national events come to the area. 

“Now, the philosophy we have is, ‘Let’s just partner together.’ In the past, we didn’t have a partner in Des Moines, and the suburbs weren’t built out like they are now,” Page said. With the number of complexes in the area, it is possible to bid for events by packaging them together, he said. “You might have to play in Clive in the morning and Grimes in the afternoon.”

Through collaboration, the Des Moines metro could bring in larger tournaments, to the benefit of the complexes they manage, as well as the businesses in those areas, Page said.

“What we would like to do is to work together with everybody, with Catch Des Moines kind of quarterbacking the whole thing and organizing the events. We cross our fingers and, hopefully, we can get some big tournaments coming in,” Page said.

Youth sports is a $19 billion industry in the U.S. according to Youth Athletes United, which is equal to the $19 billion in revenue the National Football League reported after its 2022 season. While youth sports participation rates are trending down nationally, that’s not the case in Iowa. According to a study by usafacts.org, Iowa had the second-highest youth sports participation percentage in the U.S. at 67.8%. If central Iowa is able to capitalize on the multi-billion-dollar industry by being a desirable location for youth sports in the country, the growing number of community sports complexes in the area may be able to pay dividends sooner rather than later.

The RecPlex alone has hosted national sporting events such as the AAU Junior Olympics, NAIA Men’s National Volleyball Championships, Major League Quidditch Championship, State Games of America, and the National Golden Age Games. It will also host the National Senior Games in 2025 and another round of the AAU Junior Olympics in 2026.

 

Offerings

The GrimesPlex has been able to host a multitude of youth sports camps, leagues and practices thanks to its double-digit amount of synthetic turf fields. Photo courtesy GrimesPlex

Each of these complexes offers a range of different programs and activities from summer camps, fields open to the public, courts available to rent with friends, a space for children’s games or practices, or a spot for the growing number of adult sports leagues.

The RecPlex has a few amenities that most of these complexes don’t offer including its hockey rinks and Esports Center.

“As with any new trend, the Esports Center has taken the longest to grow, but this past year was a huge success. We hosted nearly 100 birthday parties, we were the practice center for two local high schools, we welcomed 10 sold-out weeks of our popular Healthy Esports Camps and capped it all off with Iowa High School Esports Championships,” Ratcliff said.

The RecPlex also has an indoor ice arena that seats up to 2,400 people along with an indoor multipurpose turf field, pickleball and basketball courts.

At the GrimesPlex, the 50-acre complex sports double-digit synthetic turf fields, 12 full-size soccer fields, 18 baseball/softball fields and, coming soon, 36 batting cages and 36 bullpens. Becker says the construction is 95% complete. 

 

Serving the community

What many industries saw during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic were losses and shutdowns that many have yet to fully recover from. However, that was not the case with parks and outdoor sports complexes.

“People needed to go somewhere, and, with everything else shut down, parks and recreation didn’t shut down. Then people picked up golf clubs again for the first time or they got their kids involved in soccer, or whatever the sport may be,” Page said. “We’ve seen a huge uptick since COVID in people wanting to do more recreational/competitive sports.”

The ability of these complexes to host adult sports leagues gives them the chance to bring in more than just the local Little League or soccer team. While these leagues once struggled to find space, they no longer have that issue. Giving adult sports leagues the chance to grow creates another possible revenue stream for these complexes. 

“People usually support a place to host events, draw people to their communities, and provide the community an opportunity to interact. Sports and recreation contribute significantly to perceptions of quality of life. Thus, local leadership is usually looking to pursue such opportunities,” Das said, noting that improving quality of life isn’t just beneficial to the people living in the area.

“Businesses also tend to prefer places that offer a good quality of life. Sports complexes contribute significantly to a positive perception. While it is hard to measure, positive perceptions can often translate into tangible benefits for a community,” Das said.

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