On a recent morning, sunlight played on the goldenrod surrounding Michael Lee and Norm Gill.
If all goes according to plan for their personal field of dreams, children and adults could be playing games on the spot in a year.
Lee, a local engineer and businessman, and Gill, a partner with the Arizona-based consulting firm Pinnacle Indoor Sports, stood at the future site of the Nittany Valley Sports Centre, showing the proposed layout of the indoor sports facility on a 60-acre lot bordered by Fox Hill and Bernel roads.
Their project would be built on land that belonged to the defunct charity The Second Mile, which once intended to construct a learning center. A judge recently approved the sale of the land to Lee for $1.05 million, barring any objections before Oct. 24.
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Lee offered $140,000 more than the property’s appraised value.
Now, as they wait for the appeal window to close and the sale to become official, Lee and Gill are moving ahead with the planned 80,000-square-foot facility they’re dubbing “The Centre.”
At 7:30 p.m. Monday, they’ll discuss their initial master plan with the Patton Township Planning Commission, then do the same with township supervisors at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Both meetings are open to the public.
The sessions will be a prelude to the township’s formal review of the land development plan, covering such issues as traffic, parking lot lights and stormwater management.
The township is familiar with the basic concept. In May, supervisors unanimously approved a zoning change that would permit the recreational complex within the township’s planned airport district.
That opened the door for the $6 million complex Lee and Gill say will fill a need in a sports-rich community, providing a year-round resource for youth and adult leagues and programs and Penn State club teams.
The project’s first phase will include a 30,000-square-foot indoor turf field, an indoor baseball/softball diamond and an 18,000-square-foot gymnastics training center. Plans also call for a full-size, lighted outdoor turf field for soccer, lacrosse, football, rugby, baseball and softball.
A possible expansion later could add four courts for basketball or volleyball.
“I have an interest in sports in general,” Lee said. “I have an interest in family sports. I like the idea that we’re going to have a place to keep people active, and this is something that the area has been asking for for a long time.
“I don’t want to sound too corny, but I do like the idea of a safe, friendly place for everybody to play. That kind of sums it up for my overall vision.”
Making the math work
Lee, 47, the father of four children ages 7 to 17, graduated from Penn State in 1990.
Three years later, he moved to Denver to work as an engineer for two years before helping to found another firm, Reese Engineering. In 1998, he returned to Centre County to open a branch office but, after three years, moved the headquarters to State College.
Now a partner, he helps oversee a company specializing in architectural engineering, technology consulting and lighting design.
The idea for a local indoor sports complex took hold of him one day during his daughter’s gymnastics meet in Downingtown, he said. He looked around at the large facility and thought something similar would fit back home.
“I came back and sort of mentioned it to a few people, and I heard more than one person go, ‘Boy, we could really use one of these,’ and a lot of people have tried and nobody has taken it all the way,” Lee said. “I said, ‘I wonder if there’s something to that.’ ”
He turned to Pinnacle, a development and management consultant for indoor sports facilities, for a feasibility study completed in 2012. After waiting about a year, he proceeded again with the firm, settling on the former Second Mile property.
Gill said Pinnacle has done 150 feasibility studies but launched 20 indoor complexes nationwide — a revealing ratio. Even with identifiable need, he said, a facility might be potentially unprofitable in a community because recreational sports historically have been offered for low prices or for free, making it hard to set prices that can sustain a business.
In other words, he said, “the math doesn’t work.”
“You can’t have a Yugo community and bring in a Ferrari,” Gill said. “That’s a lot of times why it doesn’t work.”
A few facility owners run their business as a community service, breaking even or taking a loss as a tax break, Gill said.
“But most of our clients are looking to make this, not to retire on, but to make it a viable business operation,” he said.
State College presents an appealing market, he said, because no one has set a price benchmark for The Centre’s type of facility — and because of an abundance of local sports and Penn State club teams in need of space.
Lee said he and Gill already have reached out to some of the dozens of clubs as potential clients hat now compete for limited space on campus. They envision student teams, such as an Ultimate Frisbee team or the lacrosse club, using The Centre for practices, games and fundraisers.
“We’re certainly hoping for a Penn State connection,” Lee said.
Part of the building will be used by the Parisi Speed School, a national athletic performance enhancement organization. But, Lee said, elite training will not be The Centre’s main focus.
“This is going to be a facility that is certainly, primarily, for our community,” he said. “One of the things that’s really important to us is it’s not a facility that’s just for high-end athletes.
“Certainly we’d love high-end athletes in there, but this is a facility where we’re going to have recreational programs for all ages and all abilities in as many different sports as we can.”
Centre County already offers sports facilities, either through a municipal entity such as the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Department or through private organizations such as the Centre County YMCA, the Shaner Sports Complex and the C3 Sports and Community Center.
But as the area has grown, so has a perennial issue: finding enough space for youth and adult sports to meet demand.
In 2006, the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau commissioned a survey of local athletic facilities. The report concluded that “a relative lack” of facilities away from Penn State’s campus led to “scheduling difficulties” and some enrollment caps for schools, the YMCA, local sports organizations and parks and recreation leagues.
Overall, the report said, the region was “not particularly well served by off-campus sports facilities” at the time — though the study’s focus was on drawing more visitors to the area for tournaments for the economic impact.
Attracting regional tournaments, something Penn State has capitalized on, isn’t a primary part of The Centre’s business plan, Lee and Gill said.
“The core model and the core business plan has to be local funding, and then (tournaments) — I won’t say gravy — but that stuff becomes on the top (of everything else),” Gill said. “But it can’t be what we rely on as that market is incredibly beyond competitive as communities are becoming sports destinations.”
Some seasonal tournaments, however, could be in the picture, Lee and Gill said.
Betsey Howell, executive director of the visitors bureau, said The Centre would be an attractive resource to market to tournament organizers.
“A facility like this gives us another opportunity to go after a variety of specialty youth sports events and try to get them into the area,” she said. “It’s a great place. It’s centrally located. It’s a safe area. And this would be an added bonus in our effort to try to bring in youth tournaments.”
For local sports, she said, the need for non-Penn State facilities has only increased since the 2006 report.
“Right now, a lot of residents in the area, especially for the kids, they have to travel to other areas to use facilities because, unfortunately, the community does not have its own,” she said.
Howard Long, CEO of the Centre County YMCA, said the area has added baseball and softball fields since 2006, but soccer, lacrosse, tennis and other sports haven’t kept pace. His organization bought 46 acres in Benner Township in January for a community multisport facility, and will begin a marketing study soon.
Long sees possible partnerships with The Centre in the future, such as co-hosting local or regional tournaments, for the public’s general benefit.
“I think collaboration will be the key to success for any project going forward in Centre County,” he said.
‘I saw a need’
Financing for The Centre is coming from a group of local investors, primarily on the real estate side, said Gill, who declined to identify them or say how many.
Lee will be the primary owner of the facility’s operating company, which will be assisted by Pinnacle starting out.
“There’s no question I’m going into it as an investment,” Lee said. “But I saw a need, and I have a particular interest in sports.”
Gill said The Centre has discussed renting space with some local sports organizations, such as Centre Soccer Association and Centre Lacrosse, but overall the business won’t follow the rental model.
“You could rent 100 percent of your time at a given market rate, and it will still be red at the bottom of your spreadsheet,” he said. “It doesn’t generate enough revenue. So our model, we very much run and schedule the activities that are within the building.”
He cited Ultimate Frisbee as an example.
“We would like to run an Ultimate Frisbee league, and then (players) would pay to join our league. Same thing with all sports. We will run leagues and tournaments and instruction that we oversee.”
Throughout the year, The Centre also could play host to summer and holiday camps, instructional clinics for coaches and referees, small trade shows, corporate events and dog agility competitions, Gill said.
The common thread is that everything will be planned, Gill said. That should make parking for the 330 spaces allotted in Phase I and daily traffic flow “very much predictable,” he said.
“Because we schedule our own elements, there will be little or almost no walk-in business,” he said. “No one drives by and says, ‘Let’s pop in and play some indoor soccer.’ It’s all scheduled.”
Filling in the details
Lee hopes to break ground in the spring and finish construction by the fall.
Monday and Wednesday’s meetings, he said, are meant to fill in early details of a “nonbinding” master plan.
“Then we’ll go through the more rigorous process of land development approval with the township,” Lee said. “But they have been great so far, very welcoming to this project, and really good to work with, so we’re expecting a nice process with them.”
The Centre will be built on about 20 acres. The rest of the land, zoned “mixed-use,” could be sold later for a variety of potential developments, Lee and Gill said, adding they have no timeline for sales and that any other development would not officially be tied to The Centre.
Permitted uses include hotels, restaurants, day care centers, schools, retail and office space and apartment buildings, but not single-family residences.
Patton Township Manager Doug Erickson said the developers likely will have to submit a traffic study in the coming months, as well as meet all township construction and stormwater management regulations.
Parking lot and athletic field lights, for example, will have to be “full cutoff fixtures” that direct illumination downward and prevent it from spilling over to neighboring properties, he said.
“Most of the activity is going to take place indoors, so noise is not really an issue,” Erickson said. “Traffic, we don’t know yet. That’s something we’ll probably get into in the next step of review.”
Erickson said that the township, based on traffic study data, might look into reconfiguring the Fox Hill and Bernel intersection, making Bernel traffic come to a full stop before proceeding.
“It’s not an easy fix, but it’s an unstandard intersection now, especially for people not familiar with the area,” he said.
The township views The Centre as a good fit for the former Second Mile property, Erickson said. Supervisors already had amended the zoning regulations to allow the learning center plan, and the land, which had begun to be developed when the charity folded, had been sitting vacant for three years, he said.
“We wanted to see something happen on the property,” he said.
Another plus was the proximity of Bernel Road Park: 70 acres of public space that includes an airport-themed playground, paved walking trails, tennis courts and a nine-hole disc golf course. The township would like to add a soccer field and baseball field, though funds would not be available until 2020 at the soonest.
The park’s presence as a recreational outlet helped persuade the township that an indoor sports complex would be suitable for the area, Erickson said.
“It was a piece of ground not being used for anything, and we hate to see resources go to waste,” he said. “It’s good to see someone with a use that we understand is a highly desired use for the community.”