West Monroe Mayor Staci Mitchell.JPG

Local tourism officials say they want to review the estimated cost of West Monroe Mayor Staci Mitchell’s proposed indoor arena project before they commit any money to building the sports venue.

Earlier this year, Mitchell proposed building an indoor sports arena or indoor track that could cost as much as $20 million and provide a place to host indoor sporting events like basketball and volleyball.

Mitchell told The Ouachita Citizen earlier this week the city estimated it could cost some $1 million a year to operate an indoor sports arena.

Last week, the West Monroe Board of Aldermen hired Tim Brandon with TBA Studios, a West Monroe architectural firm, to design the project and outline the construction costs. Mitchell has suggested building the indoor sports arena on property near Ike Hamilton Expo Center.

Though Mitchell has publicly touted the Monroe-West Monroe Convention & Visitors Bureau’s (CVB) support of the project, the CVB’s board of directors agreed this week to review designs and project costs before pledging its financial support.

“We’ve made no commitment at this time,” said Alana Cooper, CVB president and chief executive officer. “We’re still in the research phase.”

Jordan Guillot, who serves as the CVB board’s vice chairman, said the board recently discussed the pros and cons of already-existing sporting event facilities that attracted out-of-state visitors.

“We’re still going to wait on the numbers,” Guillot said.

Guillot and fellow CVB board member Kevin Crosby, who is a West Monroe engineer, explained the CVB’s mission meant attracting tourists and out-of-area visitors to spur on economic activity in the parish. Drawing tourists also benefited the CVB because the organization derives its revenues from hotel occupancy taxes charged whenever residents book hotel rooms.

With the CVB’s unique goal in mind, Guillot expressed some reservations about whether the area needed a $20-million project.

“The city has a number for the cost, but we don’t know how they arrived at that number,” said Guillot, before pausing. “We just don’t know.”

Crosby and Guillot said the CVB would do its “due diligence” in researching the feasibility of Mitchell’s proposed project.

“We want to weigh the cost against what we know will bring in people from outside this area,” Crosby said.

“We also want to figure out what specific structure we need because we don’t want 10 different designs to come back. When we’re talking about that much money, we need to proceed carefully.”

Mitchell has said she hoped an indoor sports arena could attract 124,000 visitors from outside Ouachita Parish, for a total of 190,000 visitors to the facility each year.

Many of the area sporting events were outdoor sports complexes with baseball and softball fields, like the Sterlington Sports Complex, the Osterland Recreation Center and the Ruston Sports Complex.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Cooper said.

There were few indoor arenas of the scope envisioned by Mitchell.

Guillot said the CVB previously commissioned a feasibility study of building an indoor sports arena in Ouachita Parish and whether it could draw more visitors to the area.

Mitchell has referred to the same study as favorable to the city’s proposed project.

“We need to have a clear idea about what this project should be now,” Guillot said. “We’re still in the baby steps.”

An indoor sports arena could be a rewarding project, according to Cooper, sporting events like tournaments had the potential to pull in people regardless of economic factors.

“What we know is that sports is recession proof, and we can point to the recent crisis because we still had people following their children and bringing their families to support their children’s activities,” Cooper said.

In remarks to The Ouachita Citizen on Tuesday, Mitchell said more accurate numbers about the proposed indoor sports arena’s construction would not be available until the design process was completed. A final design for the project could be furnished to the city by February 2021, she said.

“The preliminary estimate for operational expenses including payroll, utilities, maintenance, repair, general and administrative cost and material and supplies is about $1,000,000 each year,” Mitchell said. “The estimated salary and operating expenses budgets will be impacted by the final design of the Complex.”

That figure included employment of three to four full-time employees as well as some part-time and seasonal employees to work special events. More than 300 direct and indirect jobs also could be created through the project, according to Mitchell.

When asked how the city would cover the proposed indoor sports arena’s annual costs, Mitchell said, “The Complex would operate on revenue generated from the rental of the building for tournaments, events, practice use, concessions, advertising and sponsorship opportunities.”

Earlier this week, Crosby and Guillot referred to a spate of sporting facility construction projects in recent years as public officials sought to capture some of the sporting activity and its indirect economic benefits.

The East Ouachita Recreation District’s (EORD) outdoor sports complex at the Osterland Recreation Center recently held its first tournament on grounds that cost some $9 million, paid for with bond proceeds from a millage levied in EORD’s area.

Former Sterlington Mayor Vern Breland’s plan to help the small town flourish by spending several million dollars to build the Sterlington Sports Complex contributed to the some $20-million debt load on the town’s taxpayers. Breland now faces criminal charges for malfeasance in office after several news reports and audits uncovered financial irregularities at the town.

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