The new DE Turf complex seeks to draw sports travelers from across the Mid-Atlantic—and provide an economic boon to the county.
A worker puts the finishing touches on of the complex’s 12 turf fields. // Photo by Joe del Tufo
Last year the Cordell family of Middletown traveled twice to California, once to Orlando and three times to destinations within driving distance to take their daughter to soccer tournaments. Mom Sonya Cordell estimates the family spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on her daughter’s soccer league.
With estimates that more than $8 billion will be spent on sports travel in the United States this year, Chris Giacomucci thinks it’s time that Kent County enjoyed a piece of the pie. Giacomucci is the director of the DE Turf Sports Complex that is being built outside Frederica.
DE Turf is an 85-acre, state-of-the-art multipurpose complex. It features 12 rectangular fields, including five with lighting. At the center is a 700-seat championship stadium. The fields surround an indoor field house complete with restrooms, concession stands, office space, locker rooms and a multipurpose room.
The fields are covered in artificial turf to cut down on maintenance and to extend the play season. The turf is a crumb rubber product that is both soft and bouncy. Some athletes like it because it helps them run faster, Giacomucci says.
“We strive for excellence and look to deliver a wow for service,” says Giacomucci.
The first tournament and grand opening is on the books for Easter weekend in April. The tournament is being sponsored by College Connection’s Shooting Star and should bring in field hockey teams from around the country, as well as college recruiters. A similar event in Virginia last year attracted nearly 3,000 players and more than 175 college coaches, according to Giacomucci.
“We’re in the center of 42.5 million people and an hour and a half from major international airports,” says Giacomucci. “All the ingredients are prepared for a good run. Visitors can make a vacation of it.”
The ease of finding the complex on Del. 1 and its proximity to so many metropolitan areas and airports is expected to make the complex that much more desirable, says Giacomucci.
Local families and sports groups are excited. Kristin Boyce, of Felton, has two daughters in travel soccer and a third about to start. Car pools are her best friend, she says. She hopes that some of her kids’ practices and tournaments will take place there.
“Right now we’re spread out everywhere,” Boyce says. “There are no other fields like this around. We are super excited about it coming to Delaware. It will bring so many opportunities.”
The Delaware Youth Soccer Association plans to use several of the fields for its Olympic Development Program, says director Laura Sturdivant. Its central location will provide players from southern Delaware a place to train, and she is sure DYSA will plan other events there.
The complex is on track to book 10 major tournaments in 2017, and is looking to add more events, camps and classes to fill the downtime. Developers of the complex want it to be well used.
Staff members at the complex are developing internal programming for everyone from 4-year-olds to older, more serious athletes. “Our vision is that a generation of young athletes will be spending their summers at the turf,” Giacomucci says.
To help build that vision the complex has brought in some heavy hitters. Rachel Dawson, a three-time Olympian, will direct and coach the field hockey program. The director of soccer is Joe Brown, who has more than 25 years of coaching experience. He has trained more than 50 pros who play for Major League Soccer and around the globe. Former Major League Lacrosse player Jay Motta will be the director of lacrosse. Motta has served on the University of Delaware men’s lacrosse coaching staff and cofounded Pro Lacrosse. “We strive for excellence,” Motta says. “There’s nothing like this in the Mid-Atlantic.”
The idea for the sports complex began in 2008 when the state tourism office identified a need for a large sports complex. The idea was handed to members of the Greater Kent Committee, a nonprofit established to identify emerging community issues and start projects to improve the quality of life of Central Delaware residents. Members of the committee took the idea and ran with it.
“It’s been my labor of love,” says Bill Strickland, chairman of the Kent County Regional Sports Complex Corp., a nonprofit organization set up to run the facility. Strickland sees tremendous potential in a high-level sports facility that’s located within a four-hour drive of more than 40 million people in the Mid-Atlantic. “The effect DE Turf will have on sports tourism in Delaware will be huge.”
One study showed the effect could grow to $18 million a year within the first 10 years. Another study estimated the complex could create more than 2,000 jobs during camp and tournament seasons in the spring, summer and fall.
Conventions, Sports & Leisure International of Texas interviewed prospective users, such as national soccer league representatives and local and regional lacrosse associations, and found a need and desire for more fields, especially in the spring when soccer and lacrosse tend to fill up fields for tournaments at the same time.
Reports from four different groups stated that the complex could attract thousands of athletes and families. And those families need places to stay, to eat and to visit, so the county expects the complex to be an economic driver, says James Waddington, economic development director for Kent County.
Kent County Tourism has big plans to help those sports families before and during their stays. The tourism office is gearing up to be the one-call stop for local information. It plans to have maps that show hotels, restaurants, museums and other destinations.
“Where do they go if they forgot their cleats?” says Wendie Vestfall, executive director of Kent County Tourism. The office will be happy to provide visitors with a list of sporting goods stores. “We want to help them have a positive experience and hopefully stay longer or maybe come back on the side,” she says. “Moms expect certain things.”
Members of the complex board have also thought of the families. Knowing that parents and very bored siblings often travel with the players, the complex will feature the Festival Walk, a series of interconnected walking paths that provide easy passage through the complex. There also will be catered concession stands and Wi-Fi.
Besides keeping siblings happy with electronic devices, the complex planners also want people to upload photos and videos to social media sites. Signs around the property will remind tournament goers to #DeTurf.
The complex comes at a price of $24 million, which was financed through the sale of bonds. Debt service on the bonds is locked in at 3 percent to 5 percent for 30 years, making the whole complex very affordable, says Strickland.
“It’s well studied,” he says. “It makes you feel good to have the complex rated by Standard & Poor’s,” a credit rating agency. That rating came in at investment grade, he says.
The Delaware Department of Transportation has also pitched in to ensure success. Last spring, the department started construction of an overpass that leads to the complex. The overpass is expected to be completed in 2018.
“The overpass will make getting into the sports complex both easy and safe,” says DelDOT secretary Jennifer Cohan. “More broadly, it will make traveling on Route 1 better for tourists and Delawareans alike.”
The state provided $3.2 million from its infrastructure fund to help, and is looking for a good return on the investment. “This facility will create significant economic activity in Kent County,” says state Sen. Brian Bushweller. “The county’s state legislators have always known that and provided bipartisan backing for DE Turf. DelDOT has also stepped up to help make the project a success.”
Giacomucci believes the complex will be a success because of communication, collaboration and thinking outside the box. He’s looking into opportunities to have such events as concerts and car shows, Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and maybe some rugby to help fill the complex’s dance card and spread the word to a wider, more diverse audience.
He believes DE Turf will become as much a culture as a destination.
“It’s a culture I believe in,” he says. “I speak from the heart.”