Sandusky builds Sports Force Park

It’s not as if Cedar Point was hurting for visitors.

In November, Cedar Fair — the Sandusky company that owns and operates 11 theme parks and four waterparks in the U.S. and Canada — reported that attendance jumped 2% and out-of-park revenues spiked 6% in the first three quarters of 2016. An annual report by Themed Entertainment Association said Cedar Point’s 2015 attendance increased 8%, to 3.51 million visitors, edging Kings Island as the top amusement park in Ohio.

But Cedar Fair officials believe a massive, $23.5 million project that officially opens for business next month ensures that its flagship property has all of its bases covered.

“Today, kids are overprogrammed. They have so many things to do,” said Jason McClure, Cedar Point’s vice president and general manager. “One of the biggest summertime commitments is sports. We just heard from our guests, ‘We’re spending time and money on tournaments. We don’t have time to make it to Cedar Point.’ ”

That sparked Cedar Point’s $3.5 million purchase of the former Griffing Sandusky Airport site, and led to a partnership with The Sports Force, a Canton, Ga.-based company that designs, builds, operates and maintains sports facilities.

The public-private partnership was boosted by $17 million in Erie County bed taxes, which helped to produce Sports Force Parks at Cedar Point Sports Center — a 57-acre home of future baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse tournaments that will double as a playground and Cedar Point recruiting spot.

The complex opens with a two-day St. Patrick’s Day baseball tournament on March 18, and 29 more youth events are already posted on an online tournament schedule that runs through the end of August.

Will Spence, the regional manager of Sports Force Parks, expects the complex to host 39 tournaments in its first year. The majority will be two- or three-day weekend events, but some will last five or six days, depending on the sport and the number of participating teams.

“It will be the premier park in the Midwest,” Spence said. “It’s like nothing else. Traditionally, when you see a lot of these fields, they’re either diamonds or rectangle baseball fields or softball fields. We’ve gone to multi-use fields. Each is uniquely based on the sport.”

The park has 12 synthetic turf baseball fields, 11 softball fields, and eight full-size fields for soccer and lacrosse. The complex also features an 18-hole miniature golf course, a promenade with concessions and merchandise, a ropes course that soars 25 feet in the air, a trampoline park and two playgrounds.

Spence said the targeted age group is 8 to 18, but there are enough distractions for toddlers and adults, too.

“Our focus is to get people to the area and take advantage of the area,” he said.

Spreading the wealth

Shortly after Eric Wobser left his job as executive director of Ohio City Inc. to take over as Sandusky’s city manager in 2014, McClure, Cedar Point’s GM, wrote him a letter concerning a proposed admissions tax increase. In it, McClure said taxes paid by the amusement park represented more than a one-third of the city’s annual tax receipts, and Cedar Point was responsible for more than 98% of Sandusky’s admission taxes. Nearly three years later, Wobser said those figures are still “pretty accurate.”

That’s one of the reasons he sees the development of Sports Force Parks as critical, since the complex will attract thousands more visitors to the area (a projected 111,000 annually), and it will do so during the “shoulder seasons” — the spring and fall months when Cedar Point isn’t as busy, or is closed.

“I think it’s incredibly exciting because we pride ourselves on being a destination, but we want to be a destination that people come to for a number of reasons,” said Wobser, a Sandusky native. “We know Cedar Point is a major driver. Waterparks and the islands are a major driver. This is going to help us get more people to the area in a positive way.”

And, Wobser hopes, more businesses.

The groups estimate that Sports Force Parks will generate 80,000 annual hotel stays by 2020, which represents about 10% of Erie County’s current annual total, plus $56.9 million in annual spending and $1.7 million in admissions and bed taxes.

“As we look to diversify our economy, that’s an effect we’re looking for,” Wobser said. “We want to be a destination, which helps us attract more restaurants and businesses to the area. Maybe someone will want to bring a technology company here because somebody boats here or wants to spend more time here.”

Dollars and sense

There’s also a ropes course on which participants can soar 25 feet in the air.

The public-private partnership is a simple one, McClure said.

“On the business side of the deal, it’s all about selling tickets,” the Cedar Point GM said. “We own the land. Sports Force operates the facility.”

Each tournament participant gets a free ticket to the amusement park and waterpark. That, of course, leads to family members purchasing passes, and adds to Cedar Fair’s already-robust bottom line.

Spence, the Sports Force Parks regional manager, said Cedar Point is also the complex’s food and beverage vendor.

It isn’t a novel concept.

The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando, Fla., has been open for 20 years. Cedar Fair’s top executive, CEO Matt Ouimet, spent 17 years as a Disney executive.

“We’ve seen that success,” McClure said of the Wide World of Sports facility. “We’ve seen those complexes that opened around the country. The land was available, and we saw the chance to make this happen.”

If the Sandusky complex is as successful as the projections, the groups probably won’t be finished. Wobser said there’s a study being undertaken that is looking at the possibility of an indoor complex that would sit next door to Sports Force Parks. Cedar Point’s Express Hotel is adding rooms for the 2017 season, and a tower of rooms at Hotel Breakers is scheduled to open in 2018.

“That was one of the foundations of the whole project — keep people engaged in the community longer,” Spence said.- By KEVIN KLEPS