Tourism officials bullish about bankrupt park

Jun. 6—Youth and amateur sports are a pillar of Visit Mesa’s strategy to drive tourism and hotel stays in Mesa and Queen Creek.

And the organization’s faith in youth sports has not been shaken by the financial woes of the region’s marquee amateur sports facility, Legacy Park, which opened in February of 2022.

Uncertainty surrounds Legacy Park’s financial footing and future ownership after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month and the current owners seek a buyer for the park.

But amid the dour news, events at Legacy are still bringing crowds to the park at Ellsworth and Williams Field roads each weekend.

The park also signed new facilities agreements even as financial woes mounted after it first defaulted on its $284 million loan agreement with bond holders last October.

Legacy’s bankruptcy filing lists over 200 facility use agreements, many inked in recent months.

Visit Mesa, the official destination marketing organization for Mesa, the Town of Queen Creek and other attractions outside Mesa, has helped drive out-of-state business to the park.

The organization is a broker of hotel and event bookings, working closely with the sales people for various travel destinations, including Legacy Park.

Visit Mesa officials said they are often the initial point of contact for site selectors exploring Mesa as an option for an event.

Rodney Reese, a Legacy Cares executive who the nonprofit announced last month will oversee the day-to-day operations of the park during bankruptcy, sits on Visit Mesa’s board.

Visit Mesa leaders say the sports park has boosted local tourism in its first, troubled year, and Visit Mesa remains as bullish as ever on youth sports tourism and Legacy Park.

“If there is such a thing as recession-proof tourism, it’s youth and amateur sports,” said Visit Mesa CEO Marc Garcia.

“Even in an economic downturn, and finances are tight in a family, they’ll forgo their family beach vacation, but they will not forgo John or Jane’s opportunity to be seen by some college coach at a college showcase tournament, which is very often what we’re hosting at Legacy sports park.”

Garcia said overall Mesa tourism has been strong this year, and fiscal year to date, hotel occupancy is up 3.3% and lodging rates are up 12%.

Garcia attributes that to numerous Visit Mesa initiates, like becoming the first Autism-certified destination in the U.S. and the region’s Fresh Foodie Trail.

But he also cites sports tourism, a domain where Legacy Park plays a key role.

He acknowledged that some Mesa residents have no interest in youth sports and complain about traffic impact from large tournaments and other events.

But, he said, “You have to just remember how much money they’re dropping into the economy and that saves you money at the end of the year.”

And Garcia believes few industries can bring in tourism dollars like youth and amateur sports.

“When you’re our business, you love to be in a situation where you’re not only enticing people to visit, but you’re darn near obligating them to visit,” he said.

“And that’s what happens when you have a product like Legacy sports complex because the families, they don’t really have a say. Their coach says ‘we’re going to play in this tournament.’ They don’t have a choice — they’re coming to visit.”

Lance Fite, director of sports sales for Visit Mesa, has helped to keep the park occupied during its opening run, Garcia said.

“As it relates to weekend business, Lance and his partners at Legacy’s sports department are doing a damn fine job of bringing those visitors in,” he said.

The destination management organization is less involved in Legacy’s weekday business, which targets residents signed up for league play and other activities.

Fite believes Mesa’s troubled destination sports facility is a gamechanger for the regional tourist economy and has a bright future.

“Regardless of any of the organizational, financial reorganizations that they’re going through, that product is so undeniable that (the park) will continue to be packed every weekend.”

He said the number of fields and combination of indoor and outdoor spaces at the 320-acre park are attractive to site selectors for national organizations like USA Gymnastics, which held its Western Regionals at the park.

The park has the capacity to meet needs that few other venues in the region can, he said.

An upcoming event he cited is a Major League Soccer NEXT tournament in December. NEXT is MLS’s player development program and boasts 11,000 players.

Not only will that event be huge, Fite said, but it will spawn numerous camps and clinics into the future.

“A lot of the U.S. Olympic bodies have to be able to host something in the West, Southwest and Midwest, East, and there is no other giant footprint of a landscape (in the Southwest) that could host something indoors, outdoors, award ceremonies, on-site banquets, everything like that,” Fite said.

Fite says it’s hit or miss whether prospective clients across the country will ask about Legacy’s current financial straits.

“I’ve been to conventions and expos where it’s a topic at this appointment, and the next one’s never even heard of anything that’s happening,” he said.

“There’s nothing shocking that we can know or tell them from inside that’s any different than what they can read.”

In Fite’s view, the park’s opening year was the toughest it will face and the only place to go from here is up.

He acknowledged that there have been logistical kinks and complaints about traffic flow and other operational issues, like limited network connectivity in the facility that hampers fan activities such as streaming games live to supporters back home.

But Fite said the park is just getting better and he has no reservations about sending clients to the facility.

“There’s no south from here,” he said “They’ve set a baseline with people of, ‘we need to fix this, we need to give a better this. This is wrong — we need to fix it.’ Any steps forward is all going to be positive.”

Last month, a bankruptcy judge approved debtor-in-possession financing that will provide Legacy Park with funds to support operations while owner Legacy Cares, seeks a buyer.

Legacy Cares said in a press release following its bankruptcy filing that it hoped to close a sale of its stake in the park by August.