Sports commission close to realizing major accomplishment


The Art Van Sports Complex is expected to have a $10 million economic impact on West Michigan in its first five years of operation. Courtesy West Michigan Sports Commission

Even though the West Michigan Sports Commission has hosted dozens of successful events and recorded significant growth over the last several years, the nonprofit organization is clearly taking its biggest step this week.

The commission is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the construction of a 12-field baseball and softball complex targeted for youth and amateur tournaments on a Kent County-owned site at 10 Mile Road and U.S. 131 in Plainfield Township.

Also at Tuesday’s event, Art Van Furniture, the state’s largest furniture retailer with 34 stores and more than 2,500 employees, will officially be introduced as the complex’s major sponsor. The company donated $1.8 million to the commission’s two-year-old fundraising campaign, Everyone Wins, and, in return, secured the naming rights.

“Art Van has come through in a big way, and this community is very grateful for its tremendous support. What was a solid vision for a premier sports facility is soon to become a reality, drawing hundreds of ball teams each year from across Michigan and neighboring states,” said Dan DeVos who co-chairs the campaign with Arend “Don” Lubbers, former president of Grand Valley State University.

The contribution from Art Van pushes the Everyone Wins campaign to within $1 million of its $7.8 million goal. The first phase of the project calls for the construction of eight ball fields, including the championship diamond with a covered grandstand that will seat 1,000 spectators, and a Miracle Field for players with disabilities. WMSC Executive Director Mike Guswiler said the complex is expected to have an economic impact of more than $10 million from visitors in its first five years of operation.

“As a Michigan-based company, we are dedicated to strengthening Michigan communities. This baseball/softball complex will not only bring sports-tourism dollars to West Michigan, it will enrich the quality of life in this community,” said Art Van Elslander, founder and chairman of Art Van Furniture, which is in its 53rd year of operation and is based in Warren.

Guswiler said Art Van Furniture emerged as a potential sponsor when the company began making a number of contributions to generate interest across the state in the company and did that here with its Connecting with Community program created with WOOD-TV8. Guswiler said DeVos and Lubbers talked with Elslander about the project, mainly what it would mean for the community and what it would mean to have Art Van involved.

Art Van CEO Kim Yost then called Guswiler for more information on the economic impact of the complex, the number of visitors it would draw, and where those spectators and family members of the players would likely come from. While they spoke, Art Van announced it would build stores in the Toledo and Chicago markets — two areas that could send teams and spectators to the complex.

“So we saw some parallels in working with who we’re trying to attract to this community — and not only statewide but also in the Midwest. We also talked about how that relates to who they saw as what their demographics are. But I think more importantly, what they were trying to do is to show West Michigan that they wanted to give back to strengthen this community, and this was a good opportunity for them,” he said.

Guswiler said he gave Yost a variety of options for getting involved with the complex, including buying the naming rights for a dugout or a field. Either of those would have cost the firm much less than $1.8 million. But the retailer decided to capture the biggest prize: the naming rights for the complex, which will be called the Art Van Sports Complex.

“In their corporate meetings, they didn’t feel that naming a dugout was going to reach what they wanted to show the West Michigan community, and they wanted to go ahead and help us cap this project off and get it to the point of construction,” he said.

Guswiler said the Art Van Furniture gift has made everyone involved with the commission and the fundraising effort feel more comfortable about going forward with the project, despite still having to raise $1 million to meet the goal.

He pointed out that a full million might not be needed once WMSC gets closer to the start of construction.

“Some of it is going to depend on the bids and how these come in, and (the cost of) some of the materials in what we want to do. We want this to be a first-class complex, no question,” he said.

Progressive AE is designing the field and Owen-Ames-Kimball is overseeing construction. Guswiler said both firms are trying to ensure that the costs for work and materials fit the project’s budget. “So that $1 million is kind of a buffer zone to be able to come to fruition on a first-class complex.”

A start date hasn’t been set for construction yet because Guswiler said there are a few loose ends the sports commission has to tie up. Perhaps the biggest is closing on the land with the county. There doesn’t seem to be any barrier that would keep the sales transaction from going forward, as the WMSC and the county came together on an option agreement that allows the commission to buy the property.

“The county gave us a great deal on the property, so on that end, they really contributed to it. We’re happy with the direction we’re going and it’s going to be a huge asset in the community,” he said.

Guswiler is working with County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio on the agreement. They’re not negotiating the price, which is established at $400,000 for a site that’s been valued at $1.65 million. Instead, Guswiler said they’re going over the terms, either buying for cash or extending the full payment over a number of years.

They’re also talking about some infrastructure work worth about $440,000.

“What my board has directed me to ask for is their willingness to amend the terms of the agreement that would include some land improvement in the way of sewer, water, some of those utilities on the property that we could have the county pay for and we’ll pay it back with interest as part of that option agreement so we don’t have to front as much money and can put more dollars into the construction,” he said.

Guswiler also said WMSC has to finalize the details in its naming-rights agreement with Art Van and he will be working with Yost on that contract. “We’re probably within weeks of having that closed in,” he said.

Guswiler thought the physical work on the project would get started within two weeks of when the property-transaction and naming-rights deals are sealed.

“Then we can get out there and get earth moving.” The first phase is expected to take up to 18 months to complete, but it could take as little as 12. The hope is to have the complex up and running during 2014 and have a full season of games set for the following year.

“You know, we’ve had a terrific summer. We were so busy with the events this summer and now that we’ve gotten through our fifth year, it’s exciting to see that,” Guswiler said. “The campaign is something that we’ve been working on for several years, and it was also pretty exciting to make that announcement with Art Van Furniture.”

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