Play Ball! Auburndale Sports Complex Aims For Strike-It-Rich Zone

While much of the economy is showing signs of recovery with home sales up and job growth creeping forward, there's one foolproof business venture that never waned.

"Sports is recession-proof,'' says Neal Duncan, sponsorship sales manager at the recently opened Lake Myrtle Sports Complex in Auburndale. "People are going to come to Polk County for sports. It's all about heads and beds. In other words, Economy 101.''

He's talking about the complex that opened last year in Auburndale and plays host to soccer, baseball, softball, and a myriad of other sports. There are blueprints to build an indoor facility for basketball, cheer competitions, and other events that will likely bring millions of dollars to the Auburndale and Polk County economy. This spring alone, despite cold weather, the Florida AAU/RussMatt Baseball Tournament attracted dozens of college teams from all over the country. Other events scheduled for the complex in 2010 USSSA and AAU events, include the home school baseball World Series, Florida United Lacrosse Championships, flag football and Independent Softball Association and World Amateur Baseball Association tournaments.

The USSSA soccer tournament, which is part of the Disney Soccer Showcase in early January, brought in more than 200 boys and girls teams from 34 states. Walt Disney World hosted the event but used the Myrtle Park facility to take care of extra teams. It was a joint venture, between Disney and Auburndale, and Kris Keprios, communications specialist for Polk County Sports Marketing, said he expects the new complex to eventually stand on its own.

Mark Jackson, director of Tourism/Sports for Polk County said that the complex is more than 90 percent booked for the rest of 2010 and that more than $25 million was generated for Polk County alone during the RussMatt baseball tournament.

"The soccer has been bigger than we anticipated,'' Jackson says. "You wouldn't believe the influx of tourists we've had from places up North. The biggest influx has come from Wisconsin. They like the weather. And we are still getting bigger and bigger.''

As far as the weather, Jackson said that on a morning in early April when the temperature in Auburndale was 38 degrees as rain poured down over the complex. Auburndale suffered through a tough spring when it came to the weather, but Jackson said that the fields and facilities survived and the summer is booked.

Polk County took a hit when the Cleveland Indians became the second Polk County spring training team to abandon the area for Arizona. The Kansas City Royals left Haines City after the 2002 season. The Indians left Winter Haven after the 2008 season, leaving the Detroit Tigers, who train in Lakeland, the only Polk County team. Other Tampa Bay area spring training teams include the New York Yankees (Tampa), the Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), the Pittsburgh Pirates (Bradenton), the Baltimore Orioles (Sarasota, and the Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater).

Duncan says that the Myrtle Park complex will replace the huge void left by the Indians.

"You know what we have here,'' Duncan asks. "Location, location, location. This will do wonders for Polk County. It will give people a reason to come to Polk County with their family and extend their stay for a few days once they see what we have here. We have more than 8,000 hotel rooms and an awful lot of vacation rental homes. When people see what Polk County has to offer, they will look at our sports facility and want to make us a destination, not just for sports, but for everything else we have to offer.''

Counting On Basic Economics

Keprios says the formula for success is very simple.

"This is all Economics 101,'' Keprios says. "We are 90 percent booked for the rest of the year. We put heads on beds; it boosts the county's economy and gets our name out there. There are a few things people are always going to do when they travel. They shop, eat, and sleep. We are right on I-4 and 33 percent of the people who come here don't know what they are going to do the next day. We'll let them know.''

That's the attitude that led to the visitors center at the complex. People unfamiliar with Polk County can stop by the visitors center and have any questions answered. It is scheduled to open by the end of May.

As far as money, Jackson said Polk County is expected to easily make up for the $25 million that went to Arizona when the Cleveland Indians. With no definite activities coming to town, Jackson says Polk County had to be retroactive.

"It's an old saying, but we figured it we build it they will come,'' Jackson says. "We have a real market here with Central Florida and Tampa Bay and we are building relationships every day. There's plenty to do and they bring dollars to Polk County.''

Jackson says the future is wide open at Lake Myrtle. The facility is almost filled to its brim throughout 2010, but what does the future hold?

Growing Confidence In Future

"We have to keep growing,'' Jackson says. "We have a long-term plan to work with businesses and we're really excited about the indoor facility. It's going to last and we have some exciting things coming up.''

One of those things is the proposed Legoland, a theme park with rides designed to look like they are made of Lego bricks. It will be built on the Cypress Gardens site and Jackson said he expects it to make a huge economic impact while offering yet another reason for sports teams from all over the nation to come to Polk County.

 A theme park is on its way with rides designed to look like they're made of toy Lego bricks, and business interests anticipate an annual pass to its economic impact. The new park is expected to attract even more restaurants and shopping facilities.

"Legoland is opening in 2011,'' Keprios says. "With it opening next year, if we can survive here at Lake Myrtle for one more year, we'll be fine. We are a lot more confident than we were last year. This is going to last a long time and really make Polk County a real destination.''

Jeff Berlinicke of Tampa is a freelance writer who has spent much of the last 15 covering professional sports all over the Southeast United States. When not rooting for his favorite teams, he often can be found listening to Bruce Springsteen or teeing up on local golf courses. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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