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September 12, 2011
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Smith River Sports Complex is meeting its two primary goals of providing fitness opportunities to local residents and serving as an economic catalyst, with an estimated impact of more than $500,000 last year, complex officials say.

And they are predicting even more growth in the coming year.

Billy Russo, director of operations at the complex, estimated its local economic impact last year at more than $500,000, calculated on a base figure of $125 spent per day per visitor who stays in a local hotel.

"We had a good year," Russo said.

Tournaments held at the complex attracted visitors from 20 countries and 26 states, he said. Those people stay in local motels, eat in restaurants and spend money in other ways that help the local economy, he added.

"Things are going very well. We have a lot of activities. A lot of diverse activities" are underway or scheduled, said Jimmy McGarry, chairman of the Southern Virginia Recreation Facilities Authority (SVRFA) which oversees the complex.

The Harvest Foundation built the nearly $9 million facility and then turned it over to the authority to manage. The complex opened in 2009, and in June 2010, Harvest announced a three-year, $865,895 operating grant to support the authority and programs at the complex.

The total complex budget includes the grant funds from Harvest, as well as income generated by events, rentals, sponsors, concessions and supporters, McGarry said.

That revenue totaled $225,000 in fiscal 2010-11, which exceeded the $208,000 projected in the complex's budget, he said.

It also was nearly double the $130,000 in revenue generated in fiscal 2009-10, McGarry said.

At the same time, "we were able to keep our expenses low enough to afford to make field six playable and still not go over our projected expenses," he said.

The complex hosted events in five sports - football, flag football, lacrosse, field hockey and soccer - and added events in most of those, McGarry said.

Other "special events" were possible by using what Russo referred to as "festival grounds" adjacent to the main facility for a Civil War reenactment, Smith River Fest and numerous camp-outs, such as those by Scouting groups, McGarry said.

Also, a local parks and recreation department sponsored a "Family Float" in which participants floated to the complex, "camped out there that night and floated on the next day," McGarry said.

Russo said other festivals and special events are planned, and "hopefully, that (sector) will grow."

Complex staff and volunteers also worked with the Virginia Museum of Natural History to hold the Earth Day celebration, Russo said. That event and the Smith River Fest are examples "of how much we're partnering with" other organizations/individuals in the community, he said.

Between 15 and 20 visitors use the canoe launch at the complex each day, while many others use the walking trail and playground, he said.

There also has been an upswing in sponsorship, fundraising and concession sales, Russo said.

There are different categories of sponsorships, McGarry said. Four of the fields now are sponsored, compared to "a year ago, (when) we had either had zero or one," he said.

Other areas of the complex also have sponsors. The complex has 12 corporate sponsors and a total of 19 business partners in various categories, McGarry said.

A new campaign, dubbed "Friends of the Complex," was created to get area residents involved in fundraising for start-up and event costs, Russo said.

McGarry said the group has 58 members, which may be individuals, families or businesses.

Concession sales are "always tied to the number of events and the number of people coming to the events," he said. Sales increased from last year "because our number of events are up and the number of spectators are up," he said.

Concession sales were among the items included in the year end revenue total, he added.

The complex also rents its facilities to local churches, businesses and individuals, Russo said. This year, "we hosted our first wedding," he said. Other events included family reunions, meetings/picnics, parties and baby showers.

Capital improvements included renovating the maintenance facility to protect equipment and reconfiguring the SunTrust Pavilion to accommodate three offices. The complex and the Piedmont Youth Soccer League (PYSL) cooperatively began work on a sixth soccer field that will be ready this fall, Russo said.

The next year is expected to be "unprecedented," Russo said, with a growing schedule of events and bookings already made through early December.

In addition to the "expanded local recreation play and leagues every day and weekend, the complex will host 14 events in six different sports," and it is projected to attract more than 2,000 people to local hotels over a three-month period, Russo said.

Upcoming events will include a "Stick It To Cancer" Smith River College Club Field Hockey Tournament on Sept. 11 to benefit the National Cancer Research Foundation, Russo said.

The Virginia Fusion 2.0 Ultimate Frisbee Tournament on Sept. 17-18 is a first at the complex, Russo said. It is expected to draw 36 teams from 20 states and Canada. More than "900 athletes will hit the field in one of the largest Women Ultimate events in the country," he said.

With more events scheduled, McGarry predicted the number of visitors, and the amount of revenue generated both at the complex and in the community, will increase over the next year.

As one caveat to future growth, Russo said he is working to change the perception that the facility is a "soccer complex. We would like to get people to stop calling us that."

Instead, he is encouraging people to call the facility what it has become: A sports complex.