Jefferson officials hoping to build youth sports complex in Westwego area

Monday, Aug 31, 2015

It’s at least a few years away, but the hope is that one day it will be compared to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.

In fact, the Jefferson Parish Sports and Recreation Complex that officials are attempting to build in the Westwego area for about $25 million may be closer to reality than most people think.

In July, officials involved in the ambitious venture learned that the State Bond Commission would reimburse them for up to $5.42 million spent on the project in the 2015-16 fiscal year, using state capital outlay money. The commission also indicated it likely would be willing to approve an additional $18.1 million as the complex eventually nears the construction phase.

That day is likely far off, though, given that no land has been bought and no preliminary designs have been drawn up for the sports complex.

Nonetheless, the project has quietly gotten out of the starting blocks.

State Senate President John Alario, the powerful Westwego lawmaker who’s behind the push for the new complex, said he anticipates the Bond Commission might allocate another $2 million for the project as soon as September.

Furthermore, the Jefferson Parish Council and the governing authority of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District — recently passed resolutions to work with each other first on finding and purchasing land for the youth baseball, softball and soccer fields that will make up the sports complex, then on actually getting the facilities designed and built.

When — and if — the sports complex is finished, Jefferson Parish would be responsible for operating and maintaining the facilities or hiring someone to do that, according to a cooperative endeavor agreement being finalized between the parish and the LSED.

What the final product will look like and how large it will be depends on its location and how much state funding can be secured, said Robert Bruno, a member of the LSED’s board of commissioners.

“That can be difficult,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jefferson Parish also has a spotty record with such major construction projects. For example, despite having hosted indoor sports competitions, concerts, trade shows and other events for only 16 years, the state-funded Alario Center in Westwego is experiencing significant structural problems.

Cracks have formed in the walls of a $1.4 million kitchen and an $8.7 million basketball arena that were added to the Alario Center — named after the state senator’s father — within the past eight years because the foundation under them is sinking. The parish is suing the various contractors involved.

Officials said the Alario Center would continue to be used even if the new sports and recreation complex materializes.

Meanwhile, the state-funded, $54.5 million Jefferson Performing Arts Center in Metairie was six years behind schedule and twice its original budget when it opened in June.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the LSED affirms in the cooperative endeavor agreement that it won’t be responsible for any cost overruns associated with building the new complex.

Even so, officials insist the project is worth the risks involved because the complex potentially could attract young athletes and their parents, aunts and uncles from across the region, the country and maybe the world if it’s built right.

Alario said it was about 18 months ago when he and others began exploring whether they could build another recreational venue in the area dubbed “Fairfield,” an 8,500-acre tract of largely undeveloped land surrounding the West Bank end of the newly expanded Huey P. Long Bridge. That general area already includes the Alario Center, the TPC Louisiana golf course, the NOLA Motorsports Park automotive racetrack and Segnette Field, where Loyola University’s baseball team plays its home games.

Officials decided an outdoor youth athletics complex would be a good fit for that section of the parish, so they looked toward facilities like the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, and the Gulfport Sportsplex in Mississippi for a general blueprint, Alario said.

It’s virtually certain the Jefferson Parish complex won’t be able to replicate what the 18-year-old Orlando facility offers both pro and amateur athletes. That $100 million complex includes a 9,500-seat outdoor stadium for baseball, two indoor arenas, a track-and-field complex and a cross-country course on top of youth baseball, softball, soccer and football fields, all just outside the Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks.

But a youth sports complex rivaling the one just off Interstate 10 in Gulfport seems to be within reach for Jefferson Parish. The Gulfport Sportsplex cost $9 million to build when it opened in 2000. By 2013, officials said, its soccer, baseball and softball fields were hosting multiple weekend youth tournaments that sometimes attract as many as 120 traveling teams.

That translates into millions of dollars being spent at restaurants, hotels, gasoline stations, souvenir stores and casinos in the Gulfport area, Sportsplex officials claim.

Alario and other local officials envision pursuing a similar volume of weekend, “traveling ball” youth tournaments for the Jefferson Parish complex, and they’re not the first locals to believe that would be a good idea.

Former New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow proposed converting the site off Michoud Boulevard where a Six Flags theme park sat before Hurricane Katrina into a sprawling youth sports complex, but the plan never took off.

Since Fielkow’s proposal fizzled out, local leaders have seen New Orleans’ recent bids to host the 2018 Super Bowl, the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four and the 2016 College Football Playoff Title Game all fail. The message, they said, is clear: The metro area can’t assume it will regularly benefit from attracting major athletics events the way it’s been able to do in past years.

Nothing at a sports and recreation complex near Westwego ever would be on the scale of a Super Bowl. But these days, hosting elite youth sports competitions that draw numerous participants and supporters sounds like a worthwhile venture for the area economy, LSED Chairman Ron Forman said.

“The whole point is for New Orleans to be recognized as a destination for sporting events — at all levels,” Forman said. “This allows us to make it happen.”

Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation President Jay Cicero said his organization, which oversees the city’s bids for events like the Super Bowl, has had informal talks about seeking out tournaments it could help bring to the Jefferson complex.

“It could be super-successful,” Cicero said. “There’s hundreds of events that could fit a multipurpose (facility) like that.”

Despite the optimism, officials acknowledge there are hurdles in their path.

For one thing, the remote tract where officials want to build the sports complex does not have enough “mom and pop” hotels or motels to accommodate the out-of-town visitors the facility aspires to draw, said Jefferson Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse, who sponsored a council resolution authorizing the cooperative endeavor agreement with the LSED.

Yet Lagasse and other officials are determined not to let such complications derail their dream of a bustling youth sports complex that would hold its own against the best out there.

“If we build that,” Lagasse said of the complex, “the hotels and the visitors will come.”

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