Expanded facilities could return Bryan Park to soccer prominence

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Soccer boosters in Greensboro are looking to form a partnership with the city in order to pay for upgrades that could help Bryan Park return to the forefront of national tournament sites.

When Bryan Park’s soccer facilities first came on line in 1990 they quickly became a top destination for regional and national soccer events, said Pete Polonsky, Greensboro United Soccer Association’s executive director. The site played host to major regional/ national championships six times between 1992 and 2010. But due to the explosive growth of soccer’s popularity in the last 20 years, other cities now have facilities that outpace Bryan Park.

Local soccer events generated an economic impact in excess of $30 million in 2010, the last time a major tournament was held at Bryan Park. That number fell below $15 million in 2013, Polonsky said, as the number of large tournaments hosted here dwindled.

“The reason for that is that we were hosting some of those regional and national events back in the 1990s and up to 2010,” Polonsky told city council during a recent work session. “We have not hosted one since and we will not host another one until we do something with Bryan Park.”

As for the shrinking economic impact, Polonsky left no doubt what the future held if improvements to the soccer facilities aren’t completed.

“It’s a big drop,” Polonsky said. “I can tell you where that number is going is lower unless we are able to do some things.”

Polonsky, along with Greensboro’s Park and Recreation Director Wade Walcutt, pitched the council on the idea of building five new fields at Bryan Park, including two artificial turf fields. The total expense for the project comes to $4.5 million, with GUSA contributing $3 million via an ongoing capital campaign.

The city was asked to consider a $1 million contribution, with the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau putting up $500,000.

The five new fields would be built to regulation size, with eight current fields being reconfigured to meet tournament specifications. The plan would include expanded parking, additional restrooms and concessions, and road improvements to ease congestion.

Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland noted the importance of soccer tourism to the local economy.

“It’s sort of like the success we’ve had with the (Greensboro Aquatic Center) and the coliseum,” Westmoreland said. “We have these families and members that come in and play youth sports at our fields and use our facilities and stay in our hotels. It has a direct economic impact on the community.”

Parks director Walcutt noted that some 17 million American youths play soccer, dwarfing the participation rates in all other youth sports. Additionally, he said, statistics show that 27 percent of all road trips in this country are related to organized sports. A large percentage of that is related to youth sports.

“This sports tourism market is the only market that hasn’t declined in any quarter since the recession began,” Walcutt said. “It tells us that folks that have kids that are involved in sports are willing to travel and go all over the country.”

Polonsky said that GUSA began in 1973 and remains one of the oldest and most diverse community soccer organizations in the state. With 4,500 participants, he said, GUSA was the second largest in the state. A lot of time has been spent on outreach and diversity efforts in recent years.

“We’re proud that we are the most diverse soccer organization in the state,” Polonsky said. “We work very hard on that. We want to be reflective of our community and we work very hard to be inclusive of our community.”

Soccer is the biggest youth participation sport, not only in the United States, but globally. Polonsky said that the sport’s popularity continues to grow, with events like last year’s World Cup in Brazil and the recent US women’s team winning the World Cup pushing soccer’s image to new heights. A recent 9 percent growth in participation was indicative of the sport’s potential, he said.

“That’s a big number when you consider it was already big to start with,” Polonsky said.

GUSA began an outreach effort in under served communities last year when the group formed a partnership with The Presbyterian Church of the Cross on English Street. GUSA sought permission from church leaders to convert a piece of land into a soccer field. After preparing the site, GUSA began having weekend events, which grew into organized games. After raising money to pay for cleats, balls, and other equipment, Polonsky said up to 60 children now participate in weekly soccer games at the site.

“It’s turned into a great thing. We want to build more of these in the community,” Polonsky said. “Even though it is increasing and even though it is already big, there are still a ton of kids out there without access to soccer in our city. They don’t have access to fields in their community. They don’t have transportation to get to fields where they can play soccer. That’s a huge problem.”

As for Bryan Park, Polonsky said GUSA’s capital campaign comes in over five years. The group intends to line up short-term financing to allow the expansion to get started. Walcutt said staff hoped to find $1 million in unspent bond money to fund the city’s contribution.

The plan will go before the Parks and Recreation Commission before coming back to city council for approval. !