Neal Freeman stepped out onto freshly laid synthetic turf where soon some of the top youth baseball players in the country will try to catch the eyes of college and pro scouts.
Instead of a batting helmet, Freeman had on a hard hat. But he was as excited as a player or coach on opening day.
He pointed to the rolling Bartow County hills near Lake Allatoona as a majestic backdrop for day games spring to fall. Then he pointed to I-75, where he expects kids, parents and coaches to caravan up from Florida or down from New England and the Midwest for elite tournaments in about 30 youth sports.
“This is going to change everything,” he said.
Freeman is one of the lead developers of LakePoint Sporting Community, a more than 1,200-acre tournament and entertainment complex will hold its first baseball and lacrosse events in June. One part, a cable-pulled wakeboard park that developers tout as the nation’s biggest, opened in early May. LakePoint also just hosted its first-ever dry land competition, sand-court volleyball.
The goal is to capitalize on the seemingly unstoppable appeal of touring youth sports leagues that send kids on journeys across a few counties or even a few states for weekend tournaments.
When many industries were on life support during the recession, touring sports leagues never missed a step, continuing to grow in popularity as kids and their parents dreamed of scholarships and a shot at the pros.
The Sports Facilities Advisory said in November that the youth travel sports industry has a $7 billion economic impact nationwide. The sports and fitness industry overall represents $81.4 billion in sales in the U.S., up from $71 billion in 2009, according to a 2014 report published by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Many private youth sports-centered complexes have been pitched in Georgia over the years, but Lakepoint has a more impressive roster than most: a team including developer Tony Carlson, Atlanta Braves managers Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart and a slew of local investors, are well underway in their bid to open a mammoth complex of shops, restaurants, hotels and facilities for about 30 sports.
A Bass Pro Shops store is committed and plans call for a retail and entertainment hub with sports bars, a movie theater and bowling alley and other restaurants designed to accommodate thousands. The developers also envisions potentially two dozen hotels and a complex of sports venues including Olympic-level track and field, Major League Baseball scale fields and a multipurpose venue that could seat 5,000. The total development cost could hit $1 billion over several years.
Freeman likens the project to “a cruise ship,” where athletes and their families will come for tournaments, spend their free time in the retail and entertainment district and even take excursions to Braves games or the Georgia Aquarium.
Much of the complex will be covered in synthetic turf made by a subsidiary of Georgia-based flooring giant Shaw Industries. That means fields can be for baseball in the morning for instance and soccer in the afternoon, and it also will allow faster drying after rain.
Also planned: Advanced facilities in youth sports medicine – clinic from famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews – as well as sports science centers to study hydration and body movements and test agility and speed.
Cox, the Hall of Fame former Braves manager who lives in the area, said the campus will be a one-stop shop for college and pro scouts looking for talent. The complex will have computerized number crunching for almost every imaginable performance measurements from pitch speed in baseball to other key metrics in other sports.
“The scouts will love this,” Cox said.
LakePoint officials say the project will employ 11,000 people at build-out, with another 15,000 jobs created by the economic ripple.
Developers also plan nature trails and eventually a Greg Norman golf academy.
Heavy machines were brushing the new turf on a recent Friday as Freeman walked out onto one of the new baseball fields. Roads were being cut into the complex and the first shops and restaurants are still a few months away.
“There was once about 14 percent unemployment in this area,” Freeman said. “I think we can help bring it back down.”
LakePoint wouldn’t have happened without the recession.
It was a gloomy day in 2008, and Freeman and his partners were seated around a conference room at his offices in Atlanta – decades of development experience between them – but in an industry that had ground to a halt.
Banks weren’t lending, and retailers like Publix – for which Freeman had built about 50 shopping centers – stopped building new stores.
“In the middle of chaos there’s always opportunity,” Freeman said, recounting discussions with his team.
For about three years starting in 2005, Freeman had tried to cobble together another youth sports-oriented compound in Gwinnett County. But banks balked when the credit crisis hit, he said, telling him they wouldn’t invest “in a field of dreams.”
Freeman said he still thought youth sports were a niche that could anchor new development. He got the idea a few years earlier during his time coaching his kids’ traveling sports teams for years.
Freeman said he liked to sprinkle in fun things like amusement parks between games to keep the kids loose. But it was tough to find hotels at tournaments sites far away from major cities.
In 2002, one of his sons was on a team that won two traveling league championships. After they returned home, all they talked about was the rides they’d taken during a visit to a theme park.
A few years later, one of Freeman’s partners found land foreclosed by Crescent Bank and Trust near Emerson, between Acworth and Cartersville. Freeman talked to architect Lamar Wakefield of Wakefield Beasley & Associates about what could be done on the site, and Wakefield in turn introduced him to another group planning a sports compound – the team including Ehrhart, Cox, Yost, Gonzalez and Carlson.
Freeman’s team had the development and financial connections, and the new partners had links to traveling baseball organization Perfect Game, North Atlanta Soccer and LB3 Lacrosse.
Over the course of several years, the developers had conversations with leagues and entities representing more than two dozen other sports — all drawn by the idea of mixing sports with entertainment and shopping.
“If you create the right place, a team could go 0-7 or 7-0, and outside the lines could be more important than what’s inside the lines,” Freeman said.