Taxes and Timing

The county's sports authority shifts its focus toward youth events

The Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority needs to answer several important questions: When should the county ask voters to increase taxes? And what should be done with the proceeds if voters say yes?

The answers to those questions could greatly impact future recreational opportunities for local youngsters.

Two years ago, the state Legislature gave Pima County voters the right to impose a small tax increase on car rentals, hotels and motels, dining, amusement activities and sporting events. (See "Batter Up?" July 16, 2009.) Also included would be a 0.15 cents-per-dollar tax increase on retail sales.

The tax increases would generate an estimated $15 million annually. Under the legislation, the hikes would be in place for 30 years; the proceeds could secure bonds; and the election has to be held by November 2014.

Voter approval would mean the funds could go toward constructing a new spring training baseball park, or renovating an existing one. However, at least 10 percent of the money would need to be spent on youth sports.

"Spring training got all the publicity," observes Jim Arnold, the authority's new executive director. "We're still talking to Japanese teams, and some major league teams that have stadium leases expiring in 2014 or 2015."

But both Arnold and the authority's chairman, Tom Tracy, emphasize that youth sports are a growing focus.

Tracy says economic analyses indicate the substantial impact that youth sports can have on Tucson's economy. "Studies show that the economy is as well-served by youth sports as by spring training baseball," he says.

Back in 2009, the authority was informed by one of its members: "A weekend baseball or softball tournament of 150 teams would generate in excess of $2 million in economic impact."

Jim Tiggas founded Tucson Invitational Games Sports, a local firm that brings hundreds of amateur athletes to town for tournaments. These include softball and baseball players, as well as golfers.

More than two fans travel to Tucson for a tournament per each participating player, Tiggas states. Those people stay in town an average of six nights, and that, Tiggas emphasizes, "contributes to the economy."

On top of existing tournaments, Tiggas has hopes for other events. On the list is a Division I five-day baseball tournament he hopes to hold next February that would include 12 to 24 teams. Tiggas is also trying to secure a Division II college-softball tournament at Lincoln Park on the city's southeast side. "It would be three days," he says, "and involve 24 teams."

While Tucson currently has facilities to handle events like these, Tiggas thinks the restoration of playing surfaces and the addition of more fields with lights would be helpful to extend tournament scheduling. "The best time to play during the summer," he points out, "is nighttime."

Lighting fields isn't cheap. Tiggas estimates that it costs up to $100,000 for each of the four to six light standards needed to do the job.

Tucson's Parks and Recreation Department director, Fred Gray, agrees that rehabbing existing facilities, such as the Hi Corbett baseball complex, is a priority. He also includes the addition of more fields as a goal.

In 2006, a 10-year strategic service plan was prepared for Gary's department. It shows guidelines for youth baseball fields as being one for every 10,000 people, with the same ratio for softball. Soccer has a goal of one field for each 12,000 people.

Based on those guidelines and available financial resources, the plan determined Tucson had an unfunded need for 11 new youth baseball diamonds by 2016. A similar number of soccer fields are also needed, as are 19 new softball fields. The total estimated cost of implementing all of them exceeds $15 million.

The need for more youth-sports facilities in unincorporated Pima County is just as acute. Len Altieri, of the county's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department, summarizes: "We're short on everything. ... All specialized sports, such as lacrosse and ultimate Frisbee, are asking for fields that are already spoken for."

In Tracy's view, voter approval of the proposed tax increases, with the accompanying bonding authority, could accomplish two major goals.

"It would provide us the opportunity to do spring training," Tracy says, "with one half of the revenue stream. The balance would provide substantial amounts for youth and amateur sports."

The tax funds generated for these activities wouldn't only be for tournament facilities, Tracy says.

"They'd also provide high-caliber fields for local teams to take advantage of," Tracy says of new facilities. "They'd meet the needs of both tournaments and the local community."

When the county will seek voter approval remains uncertain. Tracy is leaning toward 2013, but County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has another suggestion.

"At this point," Huckelberry says, "I don't think the economy is in great shape for people, plus they have a bad taste in their mouths about major league spring training," after the White Sox, Diamondbacks and Rockies all abandoned Tucson.

Based on those factors, Huckelberry recommends either holding the election in 2014, or going back to the Legislature to ask for a time extension.

Tracy thinks that may be prudent, although the authority hasn't made any definitive plans.

Revising the legislation could not only allow the election to be held later, Tracy says, but also add language not requiring the question to be on a November ballot.

Plus, Tracy suggests, there is another potential advantage of making changes to the legislation.

"It would make the bill more centered on youth and amateur sports," Tracy says.

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