Could the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center site be home to a $45M regional sports complex?

Leaders in the Historic Triangle hope to give the region’s tourism industry a boost by building a regional sports complex at the site of the current Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.

The plan being championed by the City of Williamsburg, calls for whatever is ultimately built to have 12 regulation basketball courts that could be converted to volleyball or other court sports.

The hope is the indoor facility will allow Williamsburg as well as James City and York counties to take advantage of the growing sports tourism industry, that in 2019 accounted for $45.1 billion in spending nationwide, according to Sports and Tourism Association.

The idea for a regional indoor sports center has been kicked around since 2014, according to a letter from Williamsburg City Manager Andrew Trivette to his surrounding county administrators. The Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association pushed for its development, with some hotel owners thinking it would improve the number of overnight stays. For years, the region has struggled with declining room occupancy rates,.

However, things never got off the ground due to the financial hurdles of acquiring land, construction and long-term operation, Trivette wrote in the letter. 

Trivette indicated that all changed in 2018 when an additional 1% of sales tax was added to the Historic Triangle with half dedicated to tourism and half for localities. For the last two years, the city has committed design and study funds for the proposal. 

“We’re here to formally introduce the regional sports complex to you all,” Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons said ahead of presentation to the James City County Board of Supervisors last week. 

The plan calls for James City County, York County and the City of Williamsburg to join together to form the Historic Triangle Recreational Authority which will ultimately be the governing agency over the project. 

The city estimates that a $45-million facility could be financed through a yearly $1.2-million commitment from Williamsburg, $1.2 million from the authority and $5 million one-time payment from the Greater Williamsburg Tourism Council. 

Pons underscored that regional participation is vital. 

“The likelihood of another Rockefeller or Anheuser Busch showing up to help us dig out of our challenges here is probably pretty slim,” Pons said.

The idea to use the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center site came because of “its central proximity to all three jurisdictions’ commercial areas, ease of access from I-64, and available space for supporting uses to make the center more competitive for sports tourism opportunities,” according to the letter.

“The age of having a centralized large visitors center to welcome customers, provide maps and sell tickets has passed us by,” Trivette said to York County supervisors during a meeting this week, mentioning that Colonial Williamsburg was looking to downsize from the 100 acres its current visitors center sits on. 

Victus Advisors, a consultant hired by the city, found that the best model for the region would prioritize sports tourism on the weekends and community use during the week. 

Once the facility is up and running for several years, annual tax revenues from local sales and use tax, lodging tax, and the per-room night tax are estimated to be boosted by about $1.4 million. An overall economic impact could be as high as $21 million a year.

However, the catch is that the facility would likely create an annual operating deficit of $481,700 for the Historic Triangle Recreational Authority.

“I think most of us are not surprised the facility would have an operating deficit,” Scott Stevens, James City County’s top administrator, said following the presentation. “What is not as well documented and easy to share by locality is what is the return … I think when you get into the overall picture is it a cash flow positive for us? The facility itself won’t look like it, but to the community as a whole, I think it will be.”

The next steps are for the governing bodies to formally vote to participate in the authority. That could happen in the coming weeks.

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