With more than 50,000 people attending the U.S. World Cup viewing parties in Southside Bethlehem last year, soccer could be the next big thing to bring business to the Lehigh Valley.
Allentown has minor league hockey and baseball, but Upper Saucon Township could gain a foothold in boosting the Valley’s presence as a destination for sports and the business that it brings.
A proposed $5.5 million soccer field complex that would be built at Center Valley Club, a former golf course in Upper Saucon, could elevate the sport’s position as a driving force in economic growth by bringing more visitors to the surrounding commercial establishments. The complex would include two natural grass fields and three artificial turf fields.
Lehigh Valley United, a nonprofit organization based in Allentown, is looking to develop the complex across from The Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, said Gregg Feinberg, a volunteer for the soccer club.
Feinberg, a lawyer, developer and co-owner of Feinberg Real Estate Advisors in South Whitehall Township, is helping to spearhead this project as a club volunteer and avid soccer fan. With 600-700 families involved in the club, there is a strong need for a premier soccer facility, he said.
“We think there is a need for the caliber of complex that we envisioned,” said Greg Ramos, executive director of soccer operations for Lehigh Valley United. “As a hub location that accesses the New York, New Jersey Metro area, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Lancaster in a central way, we think this could really generate a lot of interest.”
Aside from soccer, other sports could be played on the artificial turf, including ultimate Frisbee tournaments and field hockey games, Ramos said.
“We are very open to that; we would not dismiss other sports from utilization,” Ramos said.
At Camp Meeting Road and East Valley Road, the complex would cost about $5.5 million to build. The two natural grass fields would be for soccer use, and three others would be multipurpose fields.
Plans call for grandstands with 200 seats per field, light poles for championship fields, a parking area with 300 spaces, bus parking for five buses and a practice field. Plans include constructing two buildings connected to a covered plaza for rest rooms, locker rooms, concessions, storage area and ticket booths.
The club has a letter of intent to acquire 35 acres of flat land where the fields would go, Feinberg said. The land is owned by Greg Kessel and Neil Hopkins, said Peter Talman, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle.
Talman is representing the owners in the sale of the property.
“I think the overall property is challenged for development of office buildings, so this is a great use,” he said.
With access to nearby highways, including Routes 309, 378 and Interstate 78, the complex could bring in a significant economic impact on the Lehigh Valley, Feinberg said.
“It is a huge economic development engine if you do this right,” Feinberg said.
Overall, visitors spend about $1.9 billion in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Of that amount, 25.9 percent is spent on recreation, including sports, arts, culture, casinos and outdoor activities, according to Michael Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley, citing data from a 2013 state economic impact of tourism report.
That 25.9 percent is the highest percentage among traveler spending in all of the regions of Pennsylvania, Stershic said.
“A field sports complex would have the potential to increase the number of tournaments from outside the area or teams that would be hosted there,” Stershic said. “Sports has been among our fastest-growing market components, and it’s driven significantly by a few sports – soccer, lacrosse and softball.”
A new hotel expected to go under construction this spring is one of several developments that could benefit from the sports complex.
On Jan. 7, HMB Management Inc. of Upper Macungie Township received permit approvals to build a hotel at Stabler Corporate Center by the entrance to the golf course, said HMB CEO Atul Patel. By spring, the company could start construction on the 111-room Hilton franchise Homewood Suites hotel, which could take a year to 16 months to complete, Patel said.
The timing could be beneficial for the sports complex, which if built, could bring thousands of players and spectators to the site.
“It will be a positive impact on the hotel because of the people coming from out of town,” Patel said. “We would be the closest hotel to them. If out-of-town teams are going to play, we will benefit out of it.”
U.S. Soccer, governing body of the sport for U.S. teams, is looking to do a lot more initiatives such as coaching seminars and workshops at sports venues that have hotels, Ramos said.
With the hotel going up and nearby restaurants already there, the complex could benefit from additional traffic.
The club is looking for sponsors and, for now, is calling the project a “sports plex,” leaving open the option of a corporate sponsor providing naming rights.
Feinberg said once the club acquires the money to buy the land and take ownership, it will get engineering plans complete and then go before the township planning board for permits and approvals.