After hearing the results of a positive market study, the Wellington Village Council moved forward Tuesday, Oct. 11 with plans for a public-private partnership to redevelop the underutilized Wellington Community Park on South Shore Blvd., approving a financing team and updating its agreement with football star Jon Bostic and his company, Wellington Athletics.
Most of the discussion was regarding the market study by Mike Millay of Clancy’s Sports, the firm hired by Wellington to do an independent study of the market to make sure that the proposal makes financial sense.
“Our scope of work was to do an analysis,” Millay explained. “Do we have the right demographics? Are the sports the right sports? Do the demographics fit the design being proposed?”
Millay said that Wellington is a very affluent marketplace with a large youth population of 25 percent under age 17. This bodes well for the project, he said, adding that the sports focused on by Wellington Athletics are the right ones.
“The biggest sports right now — baseball, basketball and volleyball — are growing tremendously,” Millay said. “That is a good sign for what is being proposed.”
Today’s parents are keenly aware of health and fitness, Millay added. They are more focused on excellence today, rather than just participation.
“We are spending more money on youth sports than we’ve ever spent before,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, that is what is going on.”
The current design proposes four courts that can be used for basketball or volleyball, as well as one softball field, one baseball field and one multi-purpose field. There are also performance areas, fitness areas and support space.
“This is what many parents are spending money on outside of league play,” Millay said. “They are putting it all into one venue, which I think is actually very thoughtful.”
Millay noted that Bostic’s company has secured commitments from several sports leagues and tentatively hired Sports Facilities Companies of St. Petersburg to run the operation, which is the largest company in the industry. Millay also said that Bostic is a great brand asset.
“The local market has the disposable income, population demographics and spending power for this facility,” he concluded. “We feel very comfortable and confident that this is a good program and something worth going after.”
But there was some discussion regarding the number of basketball courts at the facility.
“Four courts are great, but seven is better for driving economic impact,” Millay said, explaining that at seven courts, the facility could be a draw in sports tourism.
George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, attended the meeting and spoke in favor of the project. He said that the four-court design is fine, but would like more, if possible.
“Our sports commission is very excited about all the sports development conservations in the Village of Wellington,” Linley said, explaining that more indoor sports space is needed across the state. “With four courts, you have a very strong recreational facility. You can have small tournaments, or you can be an ancillary site.”
He noted that there is gap in funding to get to seven courts, and the sports commission may be able to help make up that gap. However, Linley noted that sports tourism is a good added benefit, but it will not keep the lights on day to day. Wellington Athletics would need to at least break even without it, allowing sports tourism to provide extra support.
Councilman Michael Napoleone said that the facility being a driver for sports tourism is “aspirational” and not key to the project moving forward. Mayor Anne Gerwig added that traffic could be an issue at the site, located near the heart of the equestrian community, if the project is too successful.
Attorney Kaitlin Guerin representing Wellington Athletics said that Bostic and his partners are working with the sports commission and others to finalize the design, while also working with contractor Verdex to keep a close track on costs.
“We are working with the design so that Jon can see what works for his business model and try to provide everything that we can for the village,” she said, explaining that the number of courts was initially reduced to save costs.
Gerwig encouraged all the parties to take the time necessary to get it right. “We’re looking for that sweet spot,” she said. “That is why we’re taking this time and having this conversation. We don’t want to get it wrong.”
Jim Arnold of Sports Facilities Companies said that additional courts are not only a capital cost for the project, but also an ongoing operational cost. “The facility does not get much money for large tournaments,” he said. “That money is going to the event holder.”
The design, he said, must be sustainable for the facility.
“The way this public-private partnership is structured, we have to be sustainable,” Arnold said. “We have to be profitable. We have to pay those debt payments.”
Linley said his support for the project does not hinge on the number of courts. “Even with four courts, this is still a very special venue,” he said. “We don’t have anything like this in Palm Beach County.”
Village Manager Jim Barnes said that Wellington’s commitment is the land preparation, which will cost approximately $1.5 million, plus guaranteeing the bonds, which would then be paid off by Bostic’s company.
Councilman Michael Napoleone asked about the additional community benefits.
Assistant Village Manager Ed De La Vega said that the village will get use of one basketball court, Monday through Thursday, from 5 to 10 p.m., at no charge for recreational programming, as well as exclusive use of the multi-purpose field, and the baseball/softball fields on Saturday afternoons. Also, Palm Beach Central High School will be able to use the fields for night games.
After agreeing that the market study supported moving forward, the council heard from Deputy Village Manager Tanya Quickel on the financing aspect. While the bond financing was initially conceived to happen at the end of 2022, that was pushed back to April 2023, Quickel said, to be more in line with when Wellington Athletics will be ready to break ground, particularly since the design phase is taking longer than expected.
There were seven responses to the village’s request for proposals for underwriters. She recommended going with RBC as the national team, Raymond James as the regional team and Siebert Williams Shank as the local small business. Choosing three allows the village to find the best buyers to achieve the best financing in the market, Quickel explained.
Councilman John McGovern’s motion to approve the financing team passed unanimously.
De La Vega then brought forward minor amendments to the previously approved comprehensive agreement with Wellington Athletics. It updates the timeframes to be in line with an April 2023 groundbreaking, rather than one in late 2022. Wording required by Palm Beach County was also added.
As of now, the bond funding remains at $33 million, but that could change before the spring bond offering. Napoleone’s motion to approve the changes passed unanimously.
Bostic attended the meeting virtually. “We are excited about this project and are working hard to put the last few pieces together,” he said after the votes. “We have a vision to see this be one of the first of its kind in the country.”
In other business:
• The council approved a master plan amendment for the Winding Trails development, a nine-lot equestrian community off Aero Club Drive. A single owner has purchased two of the lots and requested changes to allow the lots of be merged together, and also adding an additional access point on Aero Club Drive so the portion of the merged lot with a home can be better separated from the portion of the merged lot with equestrian amenities. The change was approved 3-1 with Vice Mayor Michael Drahos dissenting and Gerwig not participating due to a possible conflict of interest.
• The council approved an extension to its employment agreement with Barnes as village manager. Barnes is wrapping up his first two-year contract as manager. McGovern negotiated a four-year extension that raises the base salary to $237,500 with five percent increases each year, but otherwise does not include many changes. The new contract, which begins Dec. 31, was approved 4-1 with Gerwig dissenting.