Round Rock Sports Center ready to kick off operations

In a span of just under 13 months, the Round Rock Sports Center project has gone from breaking ground to opening for business.

On schedule and within budget, the $14.9 million, 83,000-square-foot complex is expected to be user-ready before Christmas and is already booked to host sports tournaments nearly every weekend through July 2014. The sports center includes 1,276 permanent seats, with the additional capacity to host as many as 3,000 spectators and athletes for special events. The venue's 50,000-square-foot floor space can also hold as many as six basketball or 12 volleyball courts at one time, and can be adapted to host numerous other sports including wrestling, gymnastics, martial arts and boxing.

"We want to create the ultimate experience not only for the players, but also for the families," General Services Director Chad McDowell said.

The city-owned and operated facility itself, however, is not expected to become a money generator for the city, McDowell said. It was built with the intention of supporting local businesses, restaurants and hotels by drawing youth sports tournaments—and the families athletes bring with them—to the city throughout the year. According to an economic impact study conducted for the city by consulting firm Sports Facility Advisory, the new sports center could infuse as much as $6 million annually into the city through visitor spending.

"The [sports center's] revenue is not really important—it's the economic impact for the city," McDowell said. "If we can put heads in [hotel] beds, then I have done my job and I am happy."

McDowell said the sports center expects to draw 1,500–2,000 athletes, as well as their families, per weekend once it becomes operational. The Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the larger tournaments—such as girls volleyball—could fill up as much as 2,000 of the city's approximately 2,500 hotel rooms. The new hotel demand would help fill an occupancy void the city's hotel managers say occurs regularly during colder months when outdoor sports take a break.

"Getting the [hotel] business from December to April is the main focus, because that is the time when this place is empty—the whole city gets pretty slow," said Syed Ali, Holiday Inn Round Rock general manager.

The origin of the sports center project began approximately 10 years ago, when according to Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw, the city's leadership began contemplating new ways to draw added visitors to Round Rock. Realizing it would be difficult to compete with Austin to host conventions, the city's leadership decided to focus on the niche market of youth sports tournaments instead, he said.

"Youth sports is such a tourism draw [and] a natural complement that fits the identity and personality of Round Rock," McGraw said. "Part of the practicality of it is that 80 percent of Texas' population is within a three-hour drive of here. We just had to capitalize on it. But to capitalize on it, you have to build the facilities that people want to be a part of."

The city began actively improving its sports facilities in 2008 when it funded $18.2 million worth of construction and renovations at 25 baseball, softball, soccer and football fields within the 570-acre Old Settlers Park. The Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau followed up the facility improvements with a "Sports Capital of Texas" marketing campaign designed to draw tournaments to the park.

"Round Rock had never really had a tourism effort to speak of," said Nancy Yawn, Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau director. "We really proved ourselves through ... effort and the success we were having there."

In the wake of the development of Old Settlers Park, the city was able to push through a voter-approved hotel occupancy tax increase in November 2011 specifically designed to fund the new indoor sports center. Just over two years later, the building is nearly complete and ready to host its first tournament the weekend of Jan. 18–19.

"A lot of people are really envious of Round Rock right now," said Yawn, who has spent much of the past year traveling to sports conventions and speaking with tournament organizers. "We are going to import the competition. It is a perfect scenario."