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Members of Oscoela County's Tourist Development Council (TDC) voiced skepticism Thursday over a consultant's recommendation that the county spend more than $100 million on new sports facilities.

The county hired Hunden Strategic Partners (HSP) to evaluate the facilities at Osceola Heritage Park, Austin-Tindall Regional Park and at the Oscoela County Softball Complex in Kissimmee. CEO Robert Hunden reviewed his findings Thursday with council members.

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The TDC quickly dismissed Hunden's recommendation to spend $112 million to replace Silver Spurs Arena with a modern, multipurpose sports arena at OHP -- a proposal that would also require the existing arena to be renovated and repurposed as an exhibit hall.

Hunden said the arena, built in 2003 specifically to accommodate the rodeo, is functionally obsolete. The ceiling is too low to handle the kind of rigging needed for many concerts.

But TDC member Brian Wong pointed out that the county has spent millions on upgrades to the facility, including a new LED lighting system, paved parking, elevators and a VIP lounge. The arena is one of two facilities in the running to host the Orlando Magic's Development League team.

"We should get an answer by September (from the Orlando Magic)," said Rob Larson, OHP general manager.

And Wong said the success of music festival Runaway Country in March proved that OHP could attract large concerts.

So with the new arena off the table, most of the workshop discussion focused on Hunden's recommendations to expand the county's baseball, softball and soccer facilities to attract more tournament play.

The Tourist Development Council quickly dismissed a recommendation to spend $112 million on a new arena at Osceola Heritage Park. The consultant also recommended adding more baseball fields, at a cost of $13 million.
The Tourist Development Council quickly dismissed a recommendation to spend $112 million on a new arena at Osceola Heritage Park. The consultant also recommended adding more baseball fields, at a cost of $13 million. (Hunden Strategic Partners)

"These facilities are very well utilized, and you've been getting a lot of room nights," Project Director Ethan Olson said. "They need to react and respond to changing conditions in the marketplace. Everybody is getting into this act because they've all figured out that youth and adult sports are big moneymakers. To retain your current position, you need to up your game a little bit."

Hunden has recommended adding six baseball fields at OHP, and prepping two pad-ready hotel sites. Those improvements would cost about $17.6 million, but he estimates it would generate 28,000 new room nights.

Consultant Robert Hunden suggested the county buy a 217-acre tract at the W192-S.R.429 interchange for a massive new softball complex. The property is currently listed for $13.75 million.
Consultant Robert Hunden suggested the county buy a 217-acre tract at the W192-S.R.429 interchange for a massive new softball complex. The property is currently listed for $13.75 million. (Hunden Strategic Partners)

County officials have said their top priority is to sell the existing softball complex, which has only five fields and no room for expansion, to build a larger complex on the W192 tourist corridor, closer to hotels and attractions.

Hunden has recommended buying the 217-acre parcel at the U.S.192-S.R. 429 interchange's southwest corner. That property, across from Orange Lake Resorts and west of Margaritaville Resort, is currently listed for $13.75 million.

That parcel is large enough to accommodate 25 softball fields and up to a dozen soccer fields. Hunden recommended building 12 fields at a cost of $17.6 million. He estimates the expansion would generate an average of 40,000 new room nights per year.

Commission Chairwoman Vivian Janer, who also chairs the TDC, wasn't sold on the idea of moving a softball complex to the tourism corridor. She also questioned whether it would be wise to remove such a prime piece of real estate from the county tax roll.

"For me the land is more expensive, it's more valuable, it could lend itself to other uses," she said.

Find out why a consultant thinks Osceola should replace its 13-year-old Silver Spurs Arena, and build a massive new softball complex in the tourist corridor.

Hunden agreed that property on the E192 corridor would be more affordable, but said it could take years for the quality of hotels in that area to improve. And most visitors want to be closer to the major theme parks.

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"I don't think it's the end-all, be-all that you have to go west," he said. "You're going to pay more but you'll also get more, so you have to consider ROI," he said.

Deputy County Manager Beth Knight said the new Florida Tech Farm research park across from OHP will accelerate the pace of growth in that area.

"I don't think we have fully realized the impact of the FARM across the street, and we have to take that into consideration," she said. "We've had some wonderful partnerships come forward, and it seems to be gaining traction every day. It will have huge impact on that facility and our ability to attract a better hotel situation."

There was greater consensus on Hunden's recommendation to double the size of Austin-Tindall Regional Park. The county is spending $5 million to expand the soccer complex this year from five to 10 fields. The consultant recommends buying adjacent land and building at least 10 more turf fields with lighting and associated parking.

At just $6 million, the Austin-Tindall expansion is the least expensive option, and it would generate the highest number of new room nights: 53,000 per year.

"In terms of new room nights, Austin-Tindall has the lowest cost-per-acquisition," said Wong, general manager of Celebration Suites at Old Town. But he noted that not all new room nights are equal. "A room night in September is more valuable than a room night in March."

Osceola County expects to collect a record $50 million this year in Tourist Development Tax. But Wong said investing those funds in more sports facilities might not generate the highest return -- especially since most of those facilities run at a deficit, and because foreign visitors tend to stay longer and spend more money than sports participants.

"We do around 9 million overnight stays per year. In the overall scheme of things, adding 30,000 or 40,000 or even 56,000 new nights isn't that significant a number," he said. "In terms of investment, these are the most expensive room nights we can get."

Knight said the HSP report would be forwarded to the Board of Commissioners in September, but she doesn't expect any immediate action on the recommendations.

"We'll be presenting our budget in a few weeks. None of these elements that were presented today are in budget," she said. "Probably the closest would be expansion at Austin-Tindall, but we're going through financial analysis of that as well."

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