The town will be paying off the debt service on the sports facility in fiscal year 2020-21, and the savings created represents an opportunity to reinvest in areas that could promote tourism in town, according to a staff presentation at council's Dec. 19 meeting.
Gilbert took over management of the facility, now dubbed Cactus Yards, and reopened it in February after extensive renovations. The town and Big League Dreams, which formerly operated the facility, have been embroiled in a dispute over the facility’s upkeep since May 2016.
The town closed the park in July 2016 as a public safety hazard and terminated BLD’s maintenance agreement in September of that year. BLD filed suit against the town for damages in April 2017, and the town countersued.
The settlement, which was reached Dec. 3, has each side dismissing all claims against the other with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled. Each side will bear its own legal costs.
Vice Mayor Eddie Cook said the early years of the Big League Dreams facility, which opened in 2007, were good for helping make community connections, but the relationship with Big League Dreams-Gilbert did not go as well.
“That dream from many years ago has returned to Gilbert,” Cook said about the reopening. “Robert [Carmona]’s team from the Parks and Rec department has done a fantastic job making that dream come to reality, and I think it’s actually better than it ever has been before.”
Tourism Administrator Glenn Schlottman told council that youth and amateur sports is one of the main things driving visitors to Gilbert. In 2018, visitors spent $243 million in Legislative District 12, which takes up most of Gilbert and contains the Cactus Yards facility. In 2019, that number is expected to rise to about $260 million.
Visitors staying in Gilbert’s hotels pay a 2.8% bed tax. Budget Director Kelly Pfost said the first 0.5% of that is unrestricted in its usage, but the remaining 2.3%, by state law, must be used for tourism purposes. Pfost said the restricted revenue is about $600,000 and could grow to about $1 million in the coming years as more hotels come online.
Gilbert has been using that restricted revenue to support debt service at Cactus Yards, an allowable use since tournaments at the facility attract visitors who stay in nearby hotels. Pfost asked for council direction on how to use the money. starting with FY 2021-22, when the debt service is paid off.
Staff suggested a few uses, such as building more youth sports fields in town, conducting capital improvement projects on trail connections or lighting, partnering with a hotel or a conference center, doing public art or placemaking in the Heritage District or closing the gap between operating costs and revenues at Cactus Yards. Staff ultimately recommended adding field capacity and pursuing the Heritage District public art or placemaking option.
Mayor Jenn Daniels suggested there could be other revenue sources that could be used to build more fields at places like Desert Sky Park.
Council members added suggestions, too. Scott Anderson proposed establishing a visitors center at the Riparian Preserve. Daniels said she liked that suggestion but that she was also concerned about adding the project to the agenda for the coming year, which she said already promises to be busy.
In conjunction with a visitors center, Council Member Brigette Peterson suggested adding parking by connecting the lots at the Riparian Preserve with the adjacent Southeast Valley Regional Library.
Council Member Jared Taylor wondered if some of the money could be used to combat what he called "the dark side of tourism," where human trafficking increases around big events. However, in response to a question from Daniels, Pfost said such usage probably would not be allowed under the state statute.
In the end, council gave direction to staff to move forward on public art or placemaking in the Heritage District and to explore the idea of a visitors center and additional parking at the Riparian Preserve.