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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 11 months ago

Chain Gang

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A Polk County recreation complex built in 1975 is on the verge of a major makeover. Officials hope the boost goes deeper than sports.
by: Elizabeth Morrisey Contributing Writer

A long wait is finally over for Winter Haven. The Chain of Lakes Complex, a city-owned parks and recreation facility, is on the verge of a significant expansion.

The project, worth at least $22 million, centers around a 100,000-square-foot indoor field house where the Orlando Magic's D League team, the Lakeland Magic, will practice. (The team, which debuts this year, plays home games at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.)

Beyond the Magic, the Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing department is pursuing other clients that could make use of the facility. From martial arts to wrestling, and gymnastics to volleyball, the new courts will be available for several different sports. “There are so many opportunities at a facility like this,” says Marc Zimmerman, senior sales and event manager for the sports marketing department. “We've wanted this for a long time.”

Zimmerman hopes the project will mimic the success of Auburndale's Lake Myrtle Sports Park, less than 15 miles away. Before that complex was built, the county only hosted two to four soccer events each year, he says. Now Polk County holds more than 20 such events.

“That's what I envision happening with (the field house) too,” he says. “Some of our current clients are excited about it. We've worked hard at building relationships with our clients. To have one facility is fantastic.”

Funding was secured for phase one through a $22 million bond, with Winter Haven and Polk County sharing the debt. Polk County has committed $11 million to the project, from its tourist development tax.

The renovations and additions to the Chain of Lakes Complex is just the beginning of a plan for long-term redevelopment of the Chain of Lakes Park on Cypress Gardens Boulevard. The park consists of the Chain of Lakes Complex, Chain of Lakes Stadium, major league spring training facilities and a utility services lift station.

The Chain of Lakes Complex, built in 1975, has banquet facilities, a gym, Theatre Winter Haven, art gallery, classrooms, administrative offices and an Olympic-size pool. Phase one of the expansions includes the field house and parking, as well as an indoor walking track and improvements to the theater's access points.

The deadline for phase one is November 2019 - in time for the Magic's schedule and for recruiting new events. Lakeland's Straughn Trout Architects is slated to design the project and is working out a deal with the city to provide services.

Michael Stavres, Winter Haven's assistant city manager, says there is nothing like this facility in Polk County, and the long-term payoff will justify the cost. “This field house was a high priority and there is a high demand for it,” he says. “Any athletic venue is an investment.”

Stavres adds that even though the property, on more than 60 acres, is on prime real estate on Lake Lulu, city officials have questioned what to do with it. The Cleveland Indians held spring training there from 1993 to 2008, then departed for Arizona. There was talk of tearing the facilities down.

“It came back to what the citizens want, and this accomplishes that,” Stavres says. And he believes it will spark more investments in nearby retail — restaurants, hotels and shopping. “We anticipate more growth along U.S. 17. Legoland is a 10-minute drive (from the facility) and U.S. 27 isn't far.”

Future renovations for the Chain of Lakes Complex could include improvements to Theatre Winter Haven and the historic Rowdy Gaines swimming pool, with a covered spectator area and possible third pool, Stavres says. The hope is the Chain of Lakes Park feature soccer fields, lawn areas, docks on the lake and other amenities. “After it is up and running and bearing fruit,” says Stavres, “then we can look at the rest.”

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