Opinion Editorial

Sports tourism a bit of an afterthought

This week, during budget deliberations, when talk inevitably turned to "sports tourism," Coun. Tim Lauer suggested the creation of a sports tourism committee. It was an idea that resonated with his colleagues as, following some discussion, it was decided two councillors and Mayor Steve Clarke would meet to determine how best to proceed.

The debate was sparked, essentially, by concerns about higher-than-expected operating costs for the new municipal recreation centre slated to open next summer. Councillors, looking for ways to offset those costs, believe sports tourism could be their salvation.

Ray Merkley, the city's director of parks, recreation and culture, warned while sports tourism is a worthwhile endeavour, there's a balancing act involved in ensuring there's enough time available for citizens wanting to use the city's facilities. He noted Rotary Place hosts six hockey tournaments each season - any more would negatively impact local teams and user groups.

He's correct. And it's an important reminder to council that these facilities were purpose-built for Orillians. And that really is the crux of the matter: The twin pad, the fields at the West Orillia Sports Complex and, essentially, the new aquatic centre were built to accommodate the residents of this community. They were not built with sports tourism in mind.

Where a sports tourism committee might have been helpful is at the front end of this process, when these facilities were being planned and designed. A case in point is Orillia's baseball diamond situation. Orillia has some top-flight diamonds - among the best in the region. However, they are scattered throughout town, which is a problem when it comes to hosting tournaments. Just ask Mike Borrelli. He is the driving force behind the popular Northern Shootout, which uses area diamonds for its annual slo-pitch tournament. The event pumps about $500,000 into the local economy, which is great. It could be greater.

"If we had a (pinwheel) facility like they have in Barrie, we could easily accommodate more teams," said Borrelli, whose event attracted 80 teams last month - more than 40 from out of town. "And we could have a lot more tournaments throughout the year."

The teams love to come to Orillia, but Borrelli regularly fields complaints about the logistical difficulty related to getting between diamonds, the size of the fields and other issues. A purpose-built, multi-diamond facility would erase those concerns, allow for multiple tournaments and bring millions of dollars into the community. That's sports tourism.

We hope this new committee will reach out to people like Borrelli, to the Orillia Sports Council and others to ensure they understand this issue. Sadly, however, it's likely far too late to do much regarding facilities already built and, with more than half of this council's mandate already behind it, it's difficult to see how much of a positive impact such a committee could have in the foreseeable future.

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