Last year was a record-breaking year for tourism in Lee County, one that far exceeded expectations. We all know that the beaches are the No. 1 draw for tourism - and that is very important - but they have always been here. So what has changed? As the general manager of an inland hotel, I'd like to point people's attention to the importance of sports tourism in Lee County.
It's no coincidence Crowne Plaza has a sports-themed restaurant named for the legendary American outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson. We have been hosting sports fans in Fort Myers for many years now, and in the last 10 years we've seen a significant boon in sports-related travel. That is due largely to the efforts of Lee County Sports Development, founded in 2003.
When most people think of sports tourism, they think of Spring Training, and that has been a major draw since before the establishment of Lee County Sports Development. However, what this organization has added to the mix is a large number of amateur sporting events that use the same facilities.
Operated by Lee County Parks and Recreation, Lee County's five county-owned baseball complexes - including Hammond Stadium and JetBlue Park - play host to more than 200 days of amateur baseball tournaments a year when they aren't being used for spring training games. In addition to amateur baseball events, like Roy Hobbs Series, the fields are used for youth soccer, softball and archery, to name a few.
Last year, thanks to the Lee County's foresight and focus on this niche tourism market, Lee County hosted more than 100 amateur sports events, which accounted for 142,000 room nights sold. Amateur baseball events alone accounted for 85,000 of the room nights.
These events brought nearly 137,000 people to Lee County, folks who also ate at restaurants, shopped in our stores, rented vehicles, purchased gas and visited area attractions.
The estimated economic impact is $60 million in direct visitor spending from amateur sporting events alone.
It's important to note that funding for capital improvements and construction of these Lee County sports facilities comes from bed-tax dollars, not from the wallets of local taxpayers. We are also fortunate to have a dedicated and hardworking Parks and Recreation Department here in Lee County that keeps these facilities in such excellent condition year-round. We hear from our sports visitors on a frequent basis what excellent facilities we have, thanks to the hard work and professional efforts of this department. It's what makes our return-visitor ratio for amateur sporting events so enviously high.
While these amateur events seldom show up on the local resident's radar the way Spring Training does, they are a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to increasing tourism traffic that benefits us all.
My hope is that more people will recognize and appreciate the importance of sports tourism and the widespread use of county-owned facilities to Lee County's overall prosperity.
Jim Larkin is the general manager of Crowne Plaza