Effort launched to have indoor track, multi-sport facility built in Delaware
Though COVID-19 forced an outdoor meet this year, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association has conducted its annual indoor track and field championships in Landover, Maryland, since 2014.
The move to the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex came after the University of Delaware Field House, which once had a 200-meter track, was converted to an indoor practice facility for other UD teams with artificial turf covering the floor.
There is no other suitable facility in Delaware, forcing the annual commute to the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
That could change in the coming years.
Ambitious plans formulated by a group called Indoor Track Delaware aim for a facility in Delaware that would also benefit other sports and attract athletes beyond First State borders. They’ll reveal their plans Wednesday morning during an event at Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House.
“There’s a possibility we can have something here that’s very attractive,” said Jim Fischer, the Ursuline Academy coach who spent 30-plus years coaching University of Delaware teams and is part of Indoor Track Delaware’s efforts. “It’s an exciting project and I hope we can move forward on it. It would be a great thing for people in Delaware and surrounding states.”
An arena with a 200-meter, hydraulically banked track and seating for 3,500, the minimum for NCAA indoor track and field events, is envisioned.
When the track is not up – or in a larger facility with adjacent space – wrestlers, volleyball and basketball players and competitive cheerleaders could move in. Organizers foresee an arena that would be in operation throughout the year.
“We’re excited about it and we just hope it comes through because that could do a lot for the Beast,” said Vic Leonard of the Delaware Wrestling Alliance, referring to the annual Beast of the East tournament that brings hundreds of high school wresters and their families to the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center each December.
“We could bring a lot of revenue in here and there’s a lot of things we could do if we had the mat space.”
Now comes the difficult part – finding land to build it with proper infrastructure and the money to pay for it.
Cost estimates range from $25 million to $50 million, depending on the size and scope of the venue.
Indoor Track Delaware, a nonprofit, hired the market research firm Victus Advisors to perform an economic impact and feasibility report.
Victus determined that, over a 30-year period, the smaller proposed facility could provide $975 million in economic impact while the larger version could generate $1.4 billion. Food and beverage, lodging and shopping would benefit the most.
Among its findings was that tourism in Delaware is lowest during the months of December through March and a facility able to draw large gatherings for sporting events would address that.
“Thinking about the possibility of having an indoor track here in Delaware is very exciting,” said Marnie Giunta, who has coached Padua Academy to numerous state track and field titles. “Hats off to them if they can make that happen.”
Indoor Track Delaware organizers have studied two other facilities, in particular, in the hope of creating a similar venue.
The Virginia Beach Sports Center, located less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean and close to numerous hotels, opened in 2020 at the cost of $68 million. It can seat 5,000 spectators for track and has already been selected for NCAA meets. A separate conjoined area has space for 24 volleyball and 12 basketball courts.
There is also the $46 million CrossPlex in Birmingham, Alabama, which opened in 2011 and also houses a competitive swimming pool. It has hosted numerous NCAA track, wrestling and swimming championships and seats 4,000.
A Wilmington area facility, the Victus report said, would be within a 120-mile radius of 34.7 million people. That’s roughly seven times the population surrounding Alabama’s CrossPlex.
There is presently no preferred location for such a facility, as each part of Delaware is viewed to have various benefits. Location will depend on cost and availability of land, according to Indoor Track Delaware organizers.
Sussex County has the beach-area hotels, seaside attractions and, in the western area, less expensive and perhaps available land. It’s also an area to which Washington-area residents are familiar traveling.
Kent County provides a better in-state mid-point and the potential for tie-ins with Delaware State University or Dover International Speedway, where surrounding land has been used for the annual Firefly music festival.
New Castle County has two-thirds of the state’s high schools and nearly 60% of Delaware’s residents, while also being part of the nation’s eighth-largest Philadelphia metropolitan area with 6.1 million residents. It’s also where land may be less available and more costly.
“I think we can find a place to put it,” Fischer said. “The issue is getting the money to put it up.”
The hurdle in several previous efforts to place an indoor track facility in Delaware was finding the economic support, Fischer said.
Youth and high school sports in Delaware have recently benefitted from the addition of two other new destinations – DE Turf in southern Kent County and the Chase (formerly 76ers) Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
DE Turf, which opened in 2017 at a cost of $24 million, has a dozen artificial turf playing fields frequently utilized for lacrosse, field hockey, soccer and football competitions, practices and camps.
The $30 million Chase Fieldhouse opened in early 2019 featuring a 2,500-seat gym that is home court for the NBA G League’s Delaware Blue Coast and also hosts high school games. It also has a large, enclosed turf playing field, another athletic field outside and other sports-related amenities.
Planners and builders from Wilmington’s Buccini/Pollin Group considered installing an indoor track there. They decided against it because a track “significantly increases the size of the facility” and, therefore, the cost, Buccini/Pollin Group co-president Rob Buccini said at the time.
Indoor track teams must travel
The 2020-21 high school indoor track season was an outlier. COVID-19 safety protocols instituted by the DIAA prevented out-of-state competition.
In addition, with large indoor gatherings prohibited, no meets were held at Tower Hill School’s Carpenter Fieldhouse in Wilmington. Carpenter Fieldhouse has long been the site of almost weekly indoor track meets that Delaware teams would frequent. But its track isn’t the proper length or width for a sanctioned championship meet such as the DIAA’s.
As a result, Delaware teams turned winter into spring in 2020-21, holding meets on outdoor tracks and then the state championships at Dover High’s stadium, where they were greeted by mild and sunny weather on March 3.
“We were handcuffed to the weather,” said Giunta. “The one thing that has never changed is we have to train outdoors [during indoor season]. But the one constant we always had was we were competing indoors [on weekends]. We knew we would have excellent conditions when we went to our meets, so that was always something to look forward to and you could plan and train for that.”
In previous and, presumably, future indoor seasons, when they weren’t going to Tower Hill, Delaware high school teams could travel the Mid-Atlantic area for weekend meets and find no shortage of sites.
The Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland, has been a regular stop for Delaware teams, especially those from Sussex and Kent counties. It wasn’t deemed large enough, however, for the DIAA championships when officials were pondering a new championship site after the UD Field House’s alterations.
Likewise, the Hytche Athletic Center on the campus of Maryland-Eastern Shore in Princess Anne has been the site of Henlopen Conference championships but also lacks the space and seating capacity for a state meet.
Numerous Pennsylvania colleges have indoor tracks that have been regular stopping points on the winter tours of Delaware high school teams. They include Lehigh’s Rauch Fieldhouse, Penn State’s Ashenfelt Indoor Track, Ursinus’ Floy Lewis Bakes Center Field House, Franklin & Marshall’s Schnader Field House, Haverford’s Alumni Field House and Dickinson College’s Kline Center.
But they are really for training and competition, not crowds. The largest seating capacity among those is just 800 at Penn State, which is also the only one with a hydraulically controlled banked track. Indoor Track Delaware organizers imagine something that could attract large gatherings from a wide area and also be a multi-purpose setting.
Because of the necessary costs of traveling to out-of-state meets that limit some high schools, an indoor facility in Delaware would provide “equitable opportunity for everyone,’’ Giunta said, and possibly a practice location.
“That’s just a fabulous thing,” she added. “This would open the door for opportunities for all teams to be able to have those kinds of competitive settings.’’
DIAA indoor track had 863 female and 1,207 boys participants during the 2019-20 school years, the most recent available. Participation was down in 2020-21, as in all high school sports, as some schools didn’t field indoor track teams because of the COVID-19 limitations and virtual learning.
The Armory in New York City is also a frequent proving ground for indoor track competitors.
Another facility Delaware planners have looked to for inspiration is the Ocean Breeze Track and Field Athletic Complex, which sits across the street from the Atlantic Ocean on Staten Island. The 135,000-square-foot building opened in 2015 at a cost of $93 million and has 2,500 seats.
The two New York tracks are continuously busy from late fall through the winter. A state-of-the-art Delaware facility could be, Indoor Track Delaware leaders believe, the sport’s primary destination between here and Virginia Beach.
“Kids go up to Ocean Breeze and they go up to the Armory from Delaware,” Fischer said, “and they’re such nice facilities. You get fast times and everything’s well organized.
“That’s the picture we have for here, too. It would not only be for the people of the state but could draw people from a big area. When you have something like this. people just want to go there.”
Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.