When the top job at the 400-acre Grand Park sports complex
outside of Indianapolis became open, William Knox, CSEE, took the opportunity to lead the complex he helped plan as director of the Hamilton County (Indiana) Sports Authority. Since October 2016, Knox has overseen the facility, which includes 26 baseball and softball diamonds, 31 multisport fields and a field house
for indoor sports. The 20-year sports tourism veteran discussed with Connect Sports why he made the move.
What was your role in the development of Grand Park while you were with the Hamilton County Sports Authority?
I was fortunate to be a huge part of shaping what the complex looked like and getting in on the ground level. When I got hired at the Hamilton County Sports Authority in 2009, it was just a concept. Shortly after I came on board, the mayor of Westfield, Indiana, convened the Westfield Sports Commission, which shaped what the complex would look like. I co-chaired that committee. We did a thorough investigation, talking to various stakeholder groups about potential usage. We got to the point where we got enough input and built off that.
At that point, [the Hamilton County Sports Authority] was the sole marketing arm for the complex, and in some cases was booking business for the complex. As the complex grew, they started doing some of their own sales and we were looked at as a resource to help them fill gaps.
How did that lead to your transition to becoming director of the facility?
Ironically, my departure from Hamilton County was largely motivated by me wanting to branch out and do some consulting on my own. I reached out to the City of Westfield; they had a transition with their director [at Grand Park]. It seemed to be a good fit for me at the time even though I was looking to go out on my own. I had never been on this side of the business.
What have you learned? And what has surprised you?
The park has been open since 2014, and a lot of our initial deals with vendors are coming up for renewal. Because of that, I have been able to learn the business a lot quicker than I would have otherwise. It is vastly different from being in a CVB. I not only have to sell and market the facility, but also manage the facility maintenance operations and scheduling.
I’ve learned more about turf management than I ever thought I would. [With] all the grass fields we have and the high utilization on those fields, it’s a balancing act we have to go through, on almost a daily basis. That whole part of the business I was not aware of when I was on the other side.
What lessons have you learned about the best ways for CVBs and/or sports authorities to work together with facility operators?
It’s helpful to keep in mind that just because there are available dates on the calendar, that doesn’t mean they’re available for events. We have a 400-acre campus
. There is a significant amount of maintenance and upkeep we have to do to ensure that when our events come in the facility is in top-notch condition. There were times at the CVB when I’d see an empty week on the calendar and say, “Why aren’t we doing something there?” I’ve quickly learned there’s a lot that goes into the buildout of an event that takes up all 31 multipurpose fields. It’s more than just, “The dates are available; let’s do something.” It’s looking at that calendar and managing it to the point you know you have adequate time to do the maintenance.
As an increasing number of multisport tournament facilities come online, what makes Grand Park stand out?
Our location is ideal, being within an eight-hour drive for 50 percent of the U.S. population. All of the 31 multipurpose and 26 diamonds are kept to tournament-quality standards, and our state-of-the-art facility, at its core, is focused on safety and visitor experience. All of our staff is first aid and AED certified.
We have a firm commitment to making sure our facility is kept at a very high level. Elite soccer teams that have used the facility have indicated that our playing surface is better than anything they’ve seen anywhere else. We’ve put a lot of money into the drainage and infrastructure to make sure the fields can handle the rain and they are absolutely dead-even flat.
From your experience in Indiana, how would you best make the argument that investing in sports facilities can drive broader economic development?
In Westfield, sports tourism is our primary industry and the city is benefiting as a result. In just the first few years of operations, Grand Park has influenced substantial growth in new commercial development. As an example, we have two new hotels scheduled to open this year and have already celebrated the opening of several new restaurants.
If you had come out here five years ago, you would be shocked to see what currently exists. That essentially is why Grand Park was developed. The mayor at the time had a vision to use sports tourism as an industry to spur growth. It’s absolutely working.
What events are you most excited about hosting this year?
We are fortunate to host the USA Archery Outdoor National Championships in August. In the initial scope of this project we never thought about archery. But they simply need flat land and infrastructure in place to support their staff, and we have that in abundance. I was fortunate to bring that event to Hamilton County when I was with Hamilton County Tourism, so this will be a rewarding opportunity for me. Also this year, we will host the men’s and women’s Big 10 Soccer Championships. We’ve been approached by drone racing for our indoor facility. The innovation of use is a big piece for us.