DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad likely will be asked in the coming months to consider creating a statewide sports tourism and marketing fund designed to attract and support sports teams and events with a national or regional focus.
Jay Byers of the Des Moines Partnership said the concept still is preliminary, but the idea would be to formulate a statewide financial tool that could be used to provide additional revenue for sports-related activities that would contribute to the quality of life and enhance Iowa’s image as an attractive place for young professionals and others to locate.
State elected officials already have used special financing arrangements, such as sales tax rebates, to help the Iowa Speedway in Newton get started and to assist developers if they move forward with a plan to expand the Field of Dreams movie site near Dyersville.
Iowa also has been the site for the NCAA wrestling championships and women’s regional basketball tourney games, the U.S. track and field championships, pro-am golf tournaments, professional prize fights, the Junior Olympics, horse-racing cups, arena football and NBA developmental league basketball, minor league baseball and hockey teams.
Sports and tourism officials want to enhance Iowa’s ability to entice more top-tier events to Iowa, like the LPGA’s Solheim Cup tournament that is coming to the Des Moines Golf & Country Club in 2017, Byers said.
The new fund envisioned would be in the vein of the Vision Iowa infrastructure program that brought new attractions to urban and rural areas and the 2013 Iowa Reinvestment Act, which allows cities and counties to designate special 25-acre development zones and use a share of sales tax and hotel-motel tax revenues to assist private projects of at least $10 million.
“This would be much more geared toward major sporting events and potential venues as well, things that would allow our communities to invest in quality-of-life initiatives and events that we think would take Iowa to the next level because we believe we can compete with anyone," Byers said. "Being a state of 3 million people, we always have to work hard to attract those events, but when they come here, they’re very successful, and we’ve really gotten on the map.”
Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, co-leader of the House-Senate transportation, infrastructure and capitals budget subcommittee, said it’s a “chicken and egg thing” where a project could drive the fund or a pool of state money could attract developers. For the time being, supporters are talking about the concept and gauging the “appetite” of the Legislature to embark on a new initiative, he said.
The state already puts up $500,000 annually for equal distribution to regional sports authority districts certified by the Iowa Economic Development Authority for the promotion of youth sports, high school athletics, the Special Olympics or other nonprofessional sporting events.
Some recent examples of the events funding by the state appropriation include the Iowa Special Olympic Winter Games, AAU Junior Olympics, NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship, U.S. Hockey League Fall Classic, NCAA Division II Super Regional Wrestling Tournament, the Iowa Summer Games Sports Festival and the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
Branstad said Thursday he has not been part of the discussions for an expanded sports marketing and tourism effort, but he would be open to considering it. He said there is interest in having the state be a partner in helping to host the Solheim Cup, for instance.
“As these concepts and ideas come up, I’m open to considering them. I want to look at the impact they would have on the budget,” Branstad said. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but at this point, I haven’t seen anything that I’m going to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to recommend or endorse this.’”
Jerry Crawford, managing partner of the NBA Development League’s Iowa Energy and one of the founding partners of Donegal Racing, said 15,000 people attended the D-league playoffs at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, which he said “was pretty spectacular and it shows it can be done. But that was one game.”
The challenges for a state sports tourism and marketing fund would be providing fair allocations of the state money and doing it in a way that would benefit the state and the communities where the facilities or franchises exist.
“Those are some of the workability issues I suspect that would get resolved by having some sort of commission or tribunal to allocate dollars once the state made an appropriation,” he said.
Crawford said markets such as Oklahoma City have demonstrated that a sports franchise can succeed in a regional market, and Minnesota, which is similarly situated as Iowa, has bolstered its attractions via large publicly funded financial outlays for infrastructure upgrades.
“It’s a question of scope. What’s being discussed (in Iowa) is to provide assistance for existing entities and potential new entities on a much smaller scale where a few million dollars go a long ways,” said Crawford, who has been involved in several discussions about the Iowa concept. “Do I think (Iowa lawmakers) are going to come to town and put $100 million in a fund to support sports franchises? Well, no, of course I don’t. But might they take a meaningful first step? Yes, I think they might.”
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, co-leader of the House-Senate economic development budget subcommittee, said the sports marketing investments already being made by the state are producing a good rate of return, and he thinks some projects, such the Newton track, would not have been built without state help.
“I think it’s a wise investment of our money to market Iowa’s arenas and venues in this state,” Dotzler said. "Tourism dollars are very important, and it helps showcase Iowa and let people know that Iowa has something going for it.
“We’re in a war for talent so anything we can do to make Iowa a little more visible and let people know we’ve got what’s going on I could definitely be for it. I would have to look at all the details and see how much they’re talking about spending.”
Top lawmakers have said the 2014 session will be one devoted to making sure the major commitments made last year for tax relief, education reform and expanded health care coverage are sustainable before launching into new initiatives. Given that and the likelihood the election-year session will span less than 100 days, Dotzler said it may pose problems for getting a new concept through both chambers.
He added, however, that “if somebody’s got a great idea, I’m sure we can work through it.”