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POWERplex officials: ‘Youth sports mecca’ likely to stay in St. Louis County

It’s been said that, when one door closes, oftentimes another one opens. 

In Dan Buck’s case, across the threshold of this hypothetical door is his years’ long vision of building a “youth sports mecca” in the greater St. Louis region.

“It goes back probably 10 years of thought and research and planning,” Buck recalled. “A lot of us coaches that are involved in the project thought, ‘What can we do to create an environment that’s fun and engaging and really focused on that individual, not just the ballplayer, but that child and helping them become a better leader?’ And using sports for what they’re really designed to be – and that is life lessons. We recognized that if we could create this amazing environment, we also could potentially impact the culture of youth sports in a very positive way.”

The youth sports recreation complex, known as POWERplex [an acronym for Performance, Opportunity, Winning, Education and Recreation], was originally slated for a site in the Chesterfield Valley, but those plans fell apart in June 2017. When that door closed, Buck said he and his team at Big Sports Properties LLC were crushed, but not idle.

“I think it was 48 hours after Chesterfield made that vote – and while we were a little kicked, you know, a little surprised by it – we were moving forward,” Buck said.

In the aftermath of the Chesterfield decision, other areas in the region began opening their doors with proposals of their own, including a viable option in St. Peters. But none was quite as solid as one from St. Louis County Councilmember Mark Harder [R-District 7], a real estate broker who has helped spearhead the POWERplex project. 

Harder had his eye on an unassuming piece of property in North St. Louis County – the former St. Louis Mills Mall in Hazelwood, now known as the St. Louis Outlet Mall. 

“I was like, ‘Why in the world would we go to the Mills?’” Buck laughed. “It had never crossed our mind. And, as we walked through the property, it was just too perfect. It was as if it was built to be a sports complex and somebody else just used it as a mall for a few years.” 

Harder said, “The more [the developers] went up there, the more they fell in love with the property itself and started researching it on their own. They realized this would be the best place for them and they could do the most with this [land] with the plans that they had.”

Both Harder and Buck stress that, though this proposed “crown jewel” of youth sports is no longer happening in West County, West County and the rest of St. Louis County will directly benefit from the massive projected influx of tourists and revenue to the region.

They also note that, though the Hazelwood site isn’t officially a done deal, it’s well on it’s way to being Big Sports Properties’ No. 1 pick. 

A rendering of the proposed POWERplex site at the former Mills Mall in Hazelwood.

The vision 

Big Sports Properties’ vision, supported in part by St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, grew tenfold in the switch from Chesterfield to Hazelwood. 

The proposed POWERplex site in Hazelwood totals more than 1.5 million square feet. It encompasses the St. Louis Outlet Mall property and also allows for upgraded ball fields from the neighboring city of Bridgeton to be rented for supplemental use. 

The Cabela’s at the mall would remain and other shops, restaurants and hundreds of new hotel rooms are planned for the surrounding area.

Cabela’s is one of the few businesses likely to remain if the POWERplex assumes the St. Louis Outlet Mall location.

The POWERplex would have 20 Astro-Turf baseball and softball fields as well as an indoor dome for dance, cheer, volleyball, sand volleyball, basketball, pickleball and more. There are even plans for a water park, go-karts, a dormitory, sports medicine center and conference space. 

“Really, whatever we can dream, we can build inside this venue,” Buck said.

In comparison, the Chesterfield campus would have had room for two hotels [compared to seven in Hazelwood], two restaurants [compared to 15 in Hazelwood], and about 100,000 square feet of space. The Chesterfield location only would have had space and resources to focus on baseball and softball, a stark contrast to the variety of sports and recreation options possible in Hazelwood. 

“While it would have been a wonderful venue in Chesterfield, it simply was not anywhere on the size, scale and scope of what we can do at The Mills,” Buck said. 

“The idea is to keep this thing running seven days a week, 360 days a year or so, with all kinds of things going on,” Harder said. “It’s very diverse in what they’re trying to present. It isn’t just one or two sports and, as soon as that’s over, it’s vacant.”

At completion, officials predict that the POWERplex in North St. Louis County would be the largest indoor/outdoor youth sports complex in the nation. 

“There is no other venue in America that commits 1.5 million square feet to a sports resort. And, when you add the dome, it’s actually about 1.8 million square feet, so there’s nothing that even comes close to rivaling that,” Buck said. 

The age-old question

So, who is going to pay for this?

The city of Bridgeton’s ball fields will need to be upgraded to Astro-Turf, tournament quality fields in order to be on par with the POWERplex’s standards. The roads surrounding the complex will need to be upgraded to accommodate increased traffic, and the venue itself, currently part of a TIF plan and TDD district, will need to be bought out and transformed into the POWERplex.

“That’s been the big hold-up so far,” Harder said, referring to financing.

In April, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission [CVC] agreed to contribute $6 million to the POWERPlex project. This funding will come from the county’s 3.5-percent hotel tax and will be put toward upgrading Bridgeton’s ball fields.

Regarding the CVC money, Harder said, “It’s like a domino effect, this needed to happen so that other things can move forward.” As for the road upgrades, he said that money will come out of a highway fund designed for county roads and projects. 

The rest of the money is expected to come from entities such as investors, community partners and naming rights.

Matt Zimmerman, Hazelwood’s city manager, said city approval will come down to evaluating the project’s expected revenue and its cost.

Once the funds are accounted for, a finance package will be presented to the city of Hazelwood. A City Council vote is expected toward the end of May. 

Zimmerman said he is not aware of opposition to the POWERplex as long as the numbers work out.

“I think [the project] could be a really great addition to not just Hazelwood but the whole North County region – actually the whole St. Louis region for that matter,” Zimmerman said. “I think it has the potential to be a really big and really important project for all of North County.”

What’s in it for the rest of St. Louis County?

Zimmerman, Harder and Buck are in agreement that the POWERplex is an asset for the greater St. Louis region, with millions of tourists expected to visit the attraction each year.

“This will be a one-stop shop kind of Disneyland attraction where people will come in for the weekend and stay on the property, eat on the property, buy things on the property, play their games on the property and then go home,” Harder said.

According to Harder, it’s been figured that a family of four visiting for a weekend will spend, on average, about $1,000 – which includes hotel rooms, food, gas, entertainment, shopping, etc. And Harder claims this money will be spent all over the region, not just in North County.

“My effort and my political capital has been used to keep this in St. Louis County so that we don’t lose it to the surrounding counties,” he said.

Buck added, “It’s great for the county because obviously the county benefits no matter where we put [the POWERplex]. The impact will be the exact same – actually, it’ll be much bigger because the capacity for visitors is so much greater in the Hazelwood location that it ever would have been [in Chesterfield].” 

Buck estimates the POWERplex will bring in more than $100 million in retail sales, a “huge windfall” of sales tax to the county, and claims it will improve the region’s image. 

“These are families that will create a whole new economic engine in our region,” Buck said. “We’re going to show people what a great community St. Louis is and they’re going to want to come back and be a part of it.”

Buck claims the POWERplex will not only put St. Louis County on the map as far as youth sports, it will make it a nationwide leader in an industry that is booming. 

“[The youth sports tourism industry] is the fastest growing sector of the American Tourism market,” Buck said.

The growing trend for families with children involved in youth sports is what’s known as a “tourna-cation” – a tournament vacation. 

“Tourna-cations are where many, many millions of families are spending their vacation time and their vacation money to go experience youth sports but, more importantly, to experience communities and cities and regions,” Buck said.

In 2017, youth sports tourism was a $17 billion industry and it’s expected to eclipse $20 billion by 2020, according to Buck. 

“We’re excited about bringing that industry to St. Louis in a really big way,” he said. 

If all goes well, Big Sports Properties hopes to begin construction on its North County campus in August 2018, with an opening in early 2019.

“That very first walk-through, it became crystal clear to me that this is where we were supposed to be,” Buck said. “Obviously, there are still some hurdles that we have to work through. But we’re close. I’d say we’re at the five-yard line, first and goal – you know – to use a sports analogy, we just got to punch it through. Everybody is working together and trying to get that done.”

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