A 320-acre entertainment complex with an emphasis on sports facilities, claiming to be the largest in North America, is set to open in January near Gilbert, and the town is hoping to reap the benefits.

The $250 million Bell Bank Park Powered by Legacy—just east of Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa—will be the home of Legacy Sports USA’s youth, adult and amateur sports teams and serve as a venue for youth sports tournaments, events, concerts and fitness opportunities.

“They compare it a lot to the Disney Wide World of Sports complex [in Orlando] but for the West Coast,” said David Belfort, the technical director for Arizona Arsenal Soccer Club, once known as the Gilbert Soccer Club. “It’s something that you’ve got to get on the site to really understand and grasp the magnitude of how large the facility is with as many turf fields that they have and as many natural grass fields. It’s something that is new, and with things that are new comes excitement with that.”

Gilbert has tried to attract youth sports tournaments to cultivate tourism dollars—efforts that have increasingly gained traction since the 2019 reopening of Cactus Yards, data shows. But town officials said they do not see the new park as competition.

Instead, Legacy and town officials said they see more of a symbiotic relationship in which Bell Bank Park can be the local place for nearby teams to compete in regional and national events.

In turn, Gilbert can provide out-of-area visitors a place to stay, shop and eat with businesses gaining economic benefits and the town earning tax dollars.

Vision for Bell Bank Park

Legacy Cares—a nonprofit whose mission is empowering kids and families to have healthier, active lifestyles through entertainment facilities—owns Bell Bank Park, and Legacy Sports USA acts as a management company.

Bell Bank Park can accommodate a multitude of sports: baseball, softball, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, indoor and beach volleyball, pickleball, esports and futsal—a small-sided soccer game played on a hard court. It includes a championship soccer stadium that can seat 5,500.

The park has performance, wellness and family fitness centers, plus space for gymnastics, dance and cheer, and a ninja course. Outside the sports and fitness realm, it can host concerts and has an arcade, restaurant and bar.

“This really changes the landscape of youth sports, especially here in Arizona,” said Legacy Sports CEO Chad Miller, a graduate of Mesquite High School in Gilbert, a former professional baseball player and the brother of Legacy President Brett Miller. “When you have a preeminent place to play ... [it] really provides a staple in the community for youth sports and organizations to rally behind.”

Chad Miller said having grown up playing sports in Gilbert, he recognizes local teams often have had to travel to compete on the larger regional and national stages.

“That’s because we just didn’t have the facilities up to this point to be able to manage or to withstand the size or magnitude of some of these tournaments,” Miller said. “For far too long, we’ve seen teams go to Orlando ... or to Minnesota or Texas or San Diego or [Las] Vegas. That’s why having something like this in the Arizona market is important where the community can call it its own. Now all of a sudden we are the focal point.”

While final pricing details have not been worked out, Miller said he expects it to be priced competitively for rentals. The park expects to have a weekend gate fee much like Cactus Yards does. Parking will be free.

Gilbert’s growing facilities

In recent years, Gilbert has tried to grow tourism as a revenue stream, officials said, with youth sports being a component of that strategy.

Toward that end, Gilbert also has invested in municipal facilities, primarily to meet community members’ needs but also to attract local and regional tournaments, Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona said.

In spring 2019, the town reopened the former privately owned Big League Dreams facility after a $15.4 million renovation with eight baseball and softball fields with replicated backdrops to look like classic Major League Baseball stadiums, and rebranded it as Cactus Yards. It also has an indoor soccer facility.

In the fall, the town opened Gilbert Regional Park and Desert Sky Park, the latter a fitness-themed park constructed for $19.6 million with four collegiate-size multipurpose fields and room to build 12 more, including a stadium for championships, plus a ninja-style playground. Tennis, pickleball, beach volleyball and basketball courts came online at Gilbert Regional Park in 2020 at a cost of $18.4 million for that phase.

“[It has] led to that initial boom in tournaments,” Carmona said. “And then I always try to mention to people at the end of the day, we’re still able to serve those community groups. Because that’s really first and foremost the goal of those parks.”

The payoff in tournaments has been marked. In fiscal year 2018-19, the town hosted 24 external tournaments, 17 at Cactus Yards and seven at the town’s other parks. For FY 2020-21, that number was 54 at Cactus Yards and another 85 tournaments at other parks—despite a pandemic.

Additionally, Cactus Yards has been popular with all 50 available weekends booked—aside from the two weeks a year it is closed for maintenance. It also averages three requests for each booking period.

“The fact that there’s three tournaments on average every weekend waiting for space at Cactus Yards—that sort of shows that demand level that you can see and that Legacy is going to have,” Carmona said. “I do think there’s potential in the future for partnering on some of those tournaments as they come online.”

The town’s FY 2020-21 statistics show Cactus Yards having 126,936 visits by tournament participants and 110,410 visits by nonparticipants, according to the town. A 2019 Arizona State University study for the town showed tournament organizers generated 1,839 room nights at Gilbert hotels and $2.9 million in direct spending.

The United States Specialty Sports Association, a youth sports governing body, recognized Cactus Yards as its National Complex of the Year in December at the 2021 USSSA National Convention in Orlando.

“It’s easier to say what I don’t like about [Cactus Yards], which is nothing,” said Eric Bell, who runs USSSA youth baseball tournaments in Arizona and frequently uses Cactus Yards. “The facilities are great; the fields are great; the staff is really helpful. I wish I could rent it more, if you can call that a downside.”

The town also touts the landing of a Ripken Baseball select tournament to be held June 12-17 at Cactus Yards for players in the 9U/10U-13U age groups. It could attract 64 teams and an estimated 3,360 visitors.

“It’s bringing that tournament in a time frame that really benefits our businesses and hotels,” Gilbert Tourism Administrator Glenn Schlottman said about the summer time frame.

Forging partnerships

Miller said he sees Legacy as providing opportunities with other facilities, such as Cactus Yards, for hosting large national or regional youth sports tournaments that no one venue can accommodate.

“There’s certain tournaments where we have to utilize other facilities due to overflow,” he said. “That was always our mission. That was always something we anticipated was having such large national-, regional- and international-level tournaments to the point where we would have to not just be able to use Bell Bank Park but utilize the local community to withstand those types of traffic volumes.”

That is in line with Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson’s views that so many economic development opportunities, including tourism, are regional plays.

“What are the dimensions of Gilbert? 72 square miles,” Henderson said. “But the reality is when people come in to visit those borders and those lines aren’t as easily as definable as we all sort of think of them. They’re coming into a region, into an area.”

The facility sits about 3 miles from the Gilbert border with the Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport in between. Town officials said they anticipate tournament users shopping in town, perhaps going to the Heritage District to eat or visiting the Riparian Preserve in the hours away from the tournaments.

Gilbert’s hotels can benefit as well because of their proximity to the venues, midrange prices and setups that welcome youth sports travelers as they do business travelers.

Many large tournaments that attract out-of-area teams, in fact, often partner with such hotels, making “stay-to-play” requirements on teams with partner hotels that offer them discounts on lodging.

“We will drive over 4 million people through our gates at Bell Bank Park,” Miller said. “And really what that does is it drives and impacts the surrounding communities. ... It brings a life and an energy to the entire state.”