Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Bring on the Tourists: Sports & Entertainment Commission

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought a temporary halt to normal life in 2020, it became abundantly clear just how much the State College community’s economy depends on Penn State. With few students in town and without graduation and home football weekends to fill up hotels, restaurants, and shops with thousands of out-of-town visitors, local businesses suffered. 

Fortunately, according to Dave Gerdes, vice president of sales and marketing at Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, the beginning of the community’s economic recovery did not have to wait for students and football to return to campus in fall 2021. Instead, Gerdes credits relatively new local facilities like Nittany Valley Sports Centre and C3 Sports for their ability to attract youth sports events, bringing in families from outside of the area when COVID restrictions prohibited states like New York and New Jersey from hosting such events.

“In January of 2021, we had a large basketball camp come into town. It was primarily held at the Nittany Valley Sports Centre. All of a sudden, we were hearing reports of restaurants on the North Atherton side of town being so busy,” he says. “That really jump-started the service and hospitality economy last year.”

The experience turned out to be the catalyst to solidifying an idea that had been germinating for a long time: the formation of a formal sports and entertainment commission to actively seek out, secure, and manage more tourist-attracting events.

The push

“Although the idea of such an organized effort had been swirling around for years, there hadn’t been a real sense of urgency,” Gerdes says. “If there was any benefit of the pandemic, it really accelerated the movement toward a formal commission. It was kind of the perfect storm, and I don’t think it would have happened without COVID.”

By fall of 2021, Gerdes and Fritz Smith, HVAB president and CEO, had recruited local professionals Joe Battista, former hockey coach and athletic administrator at Penn State and the NHL, and Scott Sidwell, Penn State’s deputy director of athletics-external, to serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, of a newly formed Happy Valley Sports & Entertainment Commission. 

They announced the formation of this new commission at a press conference at Beaver Stadium in November 2021 and started seeking input from outside consultants, including Huddle Up Group, a sports tourism consulting firm that recently completed an audit of the community’s assets and events potential.

Huddle Up presented its findings and recommendations to the group at the end of April, pushing the commission one step closer toward becoming a reality. 

Based on their work with 200 similar organizations across the country, Huddle Up provided the commission with a blueprint of sorts, including recommendations about how many commissioners should make up the board and what their responsibilities should be. 

One of the Huddle Up findings came as a surprise to Gerdes and Battista. While internally they had been looking to model themselves after the sports commissions in other Big 10 markets, which are generally in larger cities and have been in place for a decade or longer, Battista says, “Huddle Up said, ‘No, you’re more like a Durham [North Carolina].’ That was eye-opening to us.”

Spirit of cooperation

As the commission solidifies, its main focus will be seeking out and bidding on events like major youth sports tournaments, festivals, big-name concerts, and national competitions like Iron Man events. 

This is something HVAB and Penn State have already been working on. Most recently, they procured a four-year deal to host the PIAA state golf championship at the Penn State golf courses, and they are bringing the Topgolf Live Stadium Tour to Beaver Stadium at the beginning of June. 

Continuing to build on this effort will require a strong level of collaboration between the commission and all other community stakeholders, including Penn State. Battista says he has been pleasantly surprised by what he perceives as a new spirit of cooperation from Penn State.

“The single most important thing for me was, we have to have a good partner at the university. Without that relationship, this won’t go anywhere near as far as it could,” he says. “In one of my first meetings with Scott [Sidwell], he said, ‘Let’s start with yes and figure this out.’ I almost fell out of my chair. It was this enthusiasm for making stuff happen. And that was refreshing.”

Sidwell says there are many reasons for Penn State to be so enthusiastic. For one, he says, it’s about making the most of the assets the university already has.

“We think about maximizing our facilities,” he says. “We’re only really using Beaver Stadium eight times a year for football and a smattering of events in the Mount Nittany Club. Are there other potential uses of that space that are good for the community and also good for us? It’s a win-win for everybody to have those facilities being used.”

Attracting more visitors to campus and the area holds some intangible benefits for Penn State as well. The PIAA golf championship is a prime example of this, Sidwell says.

“It’s a big deal for our community, it’s a big deal for those kids, and it’s a big deal for Penn State as well,” he says. “Anytime you have high schoolers come to your campus, they’re potential enrollees.” 

In the same vein, Battista says, the presence of the parents of young athletes in town for tournaments can have ripple effects. Recent youth tournaments brought in a Hollywood actor as well as a handful of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies to watch their kids compete.

“With these kinds of situations, you never know. Once people come here, they fall in love with the area. We could use some more companies to come and invest in this area,” Battista says.

An arsenal of assets

While Penn State is a crucial asset for the commission, it’s not the only one. When seeking potential venues, the commission will work with local schools and parks and recreation organizations; entertainment venues such as Tussey Mountain; and sports complexes like C3 Sports in College Township and Nittany Valley Sports Centre in Patton Township.

Those off-campus facilities have already proved to be big assets. 

According to owner Michael Lee, Nittany Valley Sports Centre boasts about 50,000 square feet of hard courts on which it can host everything from Comic-Con events and trade shows to wrestling, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, and pickleball tournaments. It also has one of the area’s few indoor turf fields on which it can host sports like field hockey, soccer, and lacrosse. 

Michael Lee’s Nittany Valley Sports Centre fills hotel rooms with tournament attendees. (Photo by Chuck Fong)

These events can bring in thousands of people, Lee says, citing a recent wrestling tournament that brought in teams from 22 states.

“We had something on the order of 55 wrestling teams here, each with 10 wrestlers per team, plus parents and family members. Do the math. Think about the number of hotel rooms and restaurant visits and visits to other local businesses coming from that event alone,” he says. “We’re running something like that most weekends in the winter.”

Lee’s facility would not have become the economic community asset that it is without some help from the state and the HVAB.

“I originally built the facility to serve primarily the local community,” he explains. “During the process of finishing building that first phase, we became aware of a grant program called the Redevelopment Assistance Cap Program [RACP], a Pennsylvania state grant program that provides grants to projects of all sorts that can demonstrate their potential ability to drive economic growth in their community.” 

Lee applied for and was awarded that grant, which, along with a matching grant from HVAB, enabled The Centre to expand to its current size. Now, The Centre works closely with the HVAB.

“Since we’ve been fortunate enough to be successful on some grant proposals, part of our job is to pay that back,” Lee says. “So we’re one resource in their arsenal of resources. We work with them to make sure that we have the availability that they need when they are going after particular events, and we help them sell those types of things. We’ll continue to be a resource as the Sports & Entertainment Commission comes to fruition.”

Beyond attracting new events, one of the commission’s functions will be to maintain a master schedule of sorts to make sure events do not interfere with each other and to ensure that there is enough hotel availability. 

“The festival scene is back this summer, the sports camp scene at Penn State is back full throttle this summer, we have these other facilities that are booking events, so you have all these different layers working in unison for the first time,” Gerdes says. 

Communication is the key to success, he says, and the HVAB already tries to hold weekly wrap-up sessions with all stakeholders. One thing they’ve learned is that local hotels are already well-occupied most weekends, but during the week they have too much vacancy, so Gerdes says a big goal is to increase weekday hotel occupancy.

Obstacles to overcome

One challenge that makes achieving this goal difficult is the lack of a conference center, which is the kind of facility that brings weekday hotel reservations into larger communities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. 

It’s not the only facility-related challenge facing the new commission.

“We need AstroTurf fields,” Battista says.

The lack of local artificial turf fields recently cost the area the chance to host a major soccer tournament, the Northeast Lacrosse Tournament, and the PIAA football state championships, he says.

“When the lacrosse tournament was looking at us, one of the requirements was they needed 15 turf fields. We only have 13 in the whole county, and that’s counting at the high schools and at Penn State. They’re not going to bring a tournament of that stature here and have to play in a quagmire if it rains,” Battista says. 

Likewise, he says, “You can’t play six football games over two days in December on the grass field inside Beaver Stadium. It would ruin the field.” 

Battista says one of the commission’s jobs could be to help developers obtain funding to build new fields—which would ideally be part of a sports multiplex similar to those found in cities like Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia, or Charlotte, North Carolina.

The commission will also need to help tackle staffing issues when events require a large number of volunteers—a challenge that may be a little trickier in a small town like State College than in some of the places they find themselves competing against the most—namely, Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh, York, Erie, and Lancaster. 

In spite of the challenges, Battista—who intends to stay on as chair of the commission even though he is in the middle of relocating to South Carolina for seven months of the year—is excited and optimistic about what the commission can accomplish.

“When it comes to hosting something like the Winter Classic [NHL hockey game] in Beaver Stadium, let’s stop talking about it, and let’s do it. Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan, they’ve all done them. Are you telling me they’re better than us? There is no reason we cannot do that here,” he says. “With the right people around the table, we can overcome the obstacles. Do we know if it’s going to work? How do we know if we don’t try?” 

What’s Next

In spite of some logistical challenges, Gerdes says the interest from outside event organizers is extremely encouraging.

“Unlike other products I’ve sold in my career, people don’t say no to Happy Valley. When you mention this region, they are immediately interested. They want to hear you out,” he says.

Gerdes says the group is continuing to learn as they go. 

“The PIAA [football championship] is a good example of that. We had to take a shot. Now we know the rules of engagement, so to speak,” he says.

Now the group is waiting for the results of an economic impact study, which will help to clarify and shape the commission’s goals. Meanwhile, Battista is hard at work recruiting a diverse group of commissioners representing arts and entertainment, business, sports, and hospitality, while Gerdes and HVAB are focused on hiring a new sales professional to proactively pursue event opportunities. 

As the new commission moves forward, they’ll do so deliberately and with the intention of adding to all that is good about Happy Valley without detracting from its charm.

“We don’t want to take away from what we all love about our community. It’s quaint, it’s nice, we’ve got some nice features of it not being a major city,” Sidwell says. 

But, he points out, the town already knows logistically how to handle huge influxes of visitors thanks to Penn State football weekends, and he hopes to see State College play host to events that are the equivalent of a football weekend throughout the calendar year.

Gerdes agrees.

“There’s no reason to believe that this can’t be successful. But we have to walk, not sprint.” T&G

TAGLINEKaren Walker is a freelance writer in State College.