Complex Problem Solving: Early Collaboration Creates Foundation for Sportsplex (PRB)

The key to success when planning any municipal project is community support, as demonstrated in the building of the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex in Matthews, N.C., the largest in the region.

The first phase of the $27 million, 120-acre sports complex was completed in 2013, and the second is planned for construction in 2015.

The project includes a 2,700-seat championship/tournament stadium venue, 11 lighted and irrigated sports fields, restroom buildings, shelters, a playground, and trails. The stadium also will include a natural-turf field and supporting field house, with expansion opportunities.

To create the desired tournament-caliber facility, maximize the facility’s economic impact, and obtain grassroots support from the community, Woolpert’s Sports and Recreation Market Leader Andrew Pack says it was crucial that municipal collaboration began at the master-planning stage.

“We have to understand the market and the economic benefit to understand programming for that use,” Pack says. “Programming is what drives facilities. Tying the programming to demographics and location is critical.”

Early Coordination

Woolpert, a national architecture and engineering firm, conducted three public meetings, presented the plan to the parks and recreation commission, and made the final presentation to Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.

“We were fortunate enough to be in on the initial countywide master-planning process,” Pack says. “The stakeholders helped us understand the needs of the community and what elements they thought would best contribute to their quality of life. They wanted to ensure that this was a community park first, and a facility that could be used for tournaments.”

In response to these meetings, Pack says the team incorporated multiple nature trails, playground structures, and meeting spaces into the master plan to allow for a park within a park.

Representatives also met with local sports organizations to get their feedback.

“There were all different kinds of sports represented: soccer, lacrosse, football, rugby, field hockey, (etc.),” Pack says. “Local colleges also looked at how they could use this facility.”

Pack says Woolpert provided the glue between the various entities.

“It was all good collaboration,” he says. “There were joint meetings and a unifying mission statement. We all wanted to create a quality facility, not only for the community but for Charlotte-Mecklenburg to be a youth-sports capital of the Southeast.”

Navigating Design Challenges And Finding Solutions

The intention was to maximize the complex while respecting its environmentally sensitive site.

“Anytime you develop a big sportsplex, it’s all about the numbers,” Pack says. “How many courts can we put in? How many fields can we fit? On this project, we had some environmental constraints that restricted the grading of the playing platforms. But we had a good plan going in. We just have to make sure our clients have a cost-efficient solution at the end.”

A site-suitability map carved out the areas that would best fit the desired programming while a grading plan closely reviewed cut-and-fill areas in an effort to save money and promote safety.

While working on Phase I, the team planned for the next phases. The overage earth taken from the first phase was saved for future phases.

“To keep costs down, you don’t want to haul away the additional spoil,” Pack says. “If you do, there are more trucks on the road, which is more money and more emissions into the environment, as well.”

He adds that the team has been sensitive to local, state, and federal rules and regulations.

“Our site had several streams and corridors running through it,” he explains. “We identified how to craft the master plan by looking at the vegetation and adding buffers along property lines in an effort to be a good neighbor. We also had unique vegetation that we wanted to preserve.”

Pack adds that one of the project goals was to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the code as far as stormwater regulations.

“Water quality is a very big deal,” he says. “This is a very nice ecosystem, in a very urban area.”

Economic Impact 

Two other vital aspects to the success of the Mecklenburg project, and any others like it, are profitability and longevity.

To ensure its design work and location fueled the town’s entertainment district and small-area multiuse plan, Woolpert partnered with the town of Matthews.

“These projects benefit from each other,” Pack says. “We’re leveraging economic growth by having the sports fields and entertainment/mixed-use district work in concert. We see that as a trend with these types of facilities.”

The youth-sports tourism industry spent $8.7 billion in 2013, with 70 percent of children ages 6 to 17 playing some form of team sports.

In youth soccer alone, involvement rose 26 percent between 1995 and 2012, when more than 3 million kids participated[3].

With this increase in participation comes increased tourism and advertising, which leads to regional economic growth.

The sportsplex, projected in 2011 to have a total economic impact of between $78 million and $85 million, is already generating revenue.

The two-day 2014 Big South Challenge lacrosse tournament, held at the site in June, attracted more than 900 visitors and resulted in a $450,000 windfall for the local economy.

“At tournaments, you want family activities to do outside of just the programming of the sports,” Pack says. “If it’s a walkable community, it’s a one-stop shop. It’s good for sports and good for local businesses.”

There are 15 similar events that have been scheduled at the Sportsplex throughout 2014-15.

“It’s made a huge difference here,” says Robby Stringer of Kristopher’s Sports Bar & Restaurant, which is near the complex. “Luckily, families have to come in and out of the Sportsplex right by us. We’ve gotten a large boost in business when the tournaments are here in Matthews.”

Pack says sports facilities have prospered even during economic downturns.

“I can’t say athletic fields are recession-proof, but they’re close,” he says. “You can’t just build it and they will come; you must have a business plan to ensure its success and long-term sustainability. Owners also look at the branding of their facilities and creating a unique experience because they want visitors to keep coming back.

It’s an economic-impact type of thing. If you fill the restaurants and fill the hotels, you help with the local economy.”

Teamwork Leads To Win-Win

The collaboration of government leaders, stakeholders, the public, and the developer has created a facility that caters to the needs of the community as a whole, and has positioned the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex at Matthews for long-term sustainability, profitability, and enjoyment.

“For me, it’s all about planning,” Pack says. “If you get the right team together and working toward a common goal, it will lead to success.”