Hotels, Water Park Seen for Newberry

Hoping to take advantage of thousands of expected sports tourists, land owners near the planned youth baseball park in Newberry are wooing hotel and restaurant companies to build on watermelon fields and other farmland around the complex.

Several Newberry landowners are offering land for development.

Newberry Developer Tripp Norfleet and real estate broker Nick Banks view the proposed Newberry Town Center, which includes a two-acre hotel site.
  • E.D. Norfleet and Sons, a large land owner with extensive holdings and the builder of about 450 homes in the Newberry area, has created drawings for a 20-acre “town center” that includes a two-acre hotel site. President Tripp Norfleet says he also has more than 100 acres available for later development.
  • In addition, Davis & Sons Construction, which donated 40 acres to the baseball complex, has land available for development around the site.
  • And, Joy Glanzer, broker for Prestwick Properties in Newberry, says she represents several landowners, who have land close to the baseball complex. One has a 14-acre mixed-use site, which includes a parcel designated for a hotel, and another has a three-acre site for a shopping plaza. Glanzer says she is optimistic about closing a sale on one of the sites she represents. “I could have an announcement about a hotel soon,” she says.

Along with hotels, companies have approached the city about building a water park as well as a 200-unit RV park on some of the available land, City Manager Keith Ashby says. “We are getting attention from all over the country,” he says.

The two-acre Norfleet hotel site is being offered for $490,000. Listing broker Nick Banks of Front Street Commercial Real Estate Group says he based the figure on the selling price of comparable parcels in Waldo and Starke. “We’ve had interest from several hotel chains and developers, but I don’t think people will make offers until they see dirt moving,” Banks says.

Construction of the 16-field Nations Baseball complex, modeled on a highly successful Cooperstown, N.Y., Dream Park, was scheduled to begin before now but was delayed as Newberry city officials brought project costs in line with the $7 million they have available for the project. Funding is coming from a 2 cent per dollar increase in county “bed tax”—money that tourists pay when staying in local hotels and B&Bs. Newberry is scheduled to get half of the increased tax, with the other half going to other county projects.

The lowest bid for the ball park came in $1 million over budget, but the city was able to make changes and get concessions from the contractor to stay within the $7 million, Ashby says.

However, the city still needs an additional $277,000, primarily to provide shaded overhangs for the stands at each field, Ashby says.

“The additions will create the ‘wow’ factor that will keep people coming back year after year,” Newberry Commissioner Joe Hoffman told county commissioners in a request for the additional funds.

Commissioners said they supported the request, but they referred it to the Tourist Development Council for review because the money would have to taken from other possible projects, including a new county fairgrounds and the Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention.

Hotel Plans Not Popular with All

When the county commission considered raising the bed tax last year, many hoteliers were concerned that a higher tax would discourage visitors and lead to construction of a hotel in Newberry that would draw away traffic.

At that time, Lou Presutti, founder of the Cooperstown project and the developer for Nationals Baseball Park, said that he would not include any housing at the local complex. Pressuti was referring to dormitories for players, not the potential for Newberry property owners to build hotels, says John Pritcher, the county’s tourism program coordinator.

Susan Perkins, general manager of the local Hampton Inn, was a critic of the tax increase last year. She now has mixed feelings about the potential for hotels in Newberry. “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen this soon,” she says.

Perkins still questions the county commission’s decision to pledge the tourist development tax to the baseball project, arguing that it would have been better spent on a convention center. “Gainesville misses a lot of potential conventions because it doesn’t have any large meeting space,” she says.

“A convention center would have been more of a help for Gainesville hotels than the baseball complex will be,” she says. “How successful the baseball complex will be is speculative.”

Pritcher says the county couldn’t raise enough money from tourist taxes to build and then operate a convention center.

Newberry Reps Say Criticism Unfounded

Newberry boosters also disagree with Perkins’ criticism of the baseball complex.

Norfleet has visited Cooperstown, a small upstate New York community, and he says the youth baseball complex is key to the local economy there, although that park only operates seasonally.  “Many of the teams going there are from Florida and Georgia,” he says. “They have a waiting list of teams wanting to play.”

Youth sports are big business, Norfleet says. “People spend a lot of money,” he says. “All of Gainesville will benefit from what’s being built in Newberry.”

Nations Baseball is expected to host up to 100 teams per week, and will operate during the summer and breaks in the school year.

Glanzer, a former Newberry Chamber of Commerce president, sees the baseball complex as the culmination of a vision that she and other community leaders had 10 years ago of spurring Newberry’s economic development through youth sports. “I’m spending 100 percent of my time marketing Nations Baseball,” she says.

Second Bed Tax Project on Hold

While one cent of the county’s higher bed tax has been allocated to Nations Baseball Park in Newberry, a second cent was supposed to be dedicated to other capital projects, with a priority on a 30,000 to 40,000-square-foot exhibition hall at a new county fairgrounds facility.

“This would be four to five times larger than any meeting space we now have in the Gainesville area,” says John Pritcher, the county’s tourism development program coordinator.

The county has purchased 150 acres off Waldo Road near the Leveda Brown Environmental Park and Transfer Station for the new fairgrounds.

However, it cannot start work on that or the exhibition space—estimated to cost $20 million combined—until it sells the existing fairgrounds off 39th Avenue, Assistant County Manager Rick Drummond says. So far, no one has expressed interest in buying the current fairgrounds.

Until the fairgrounds project moves forward or another projected is selected for the money, the county will bank money from the second added cent of bed tax, Drummond says.

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