published: Friday, December 14, 2012
roxanne brown | Staff Writer
Professional athletes in town? Bet your bottom dollar they will make their way to the National Training Center in Clermont at one point or another during their stay.
In fact, the NTC is probably the very reason they are in South Lake to begin with.
Many of them relocate to the area permanently just to be near the facility.
Could that be because the NTC complex includes an Olympic-sized pool, a human performance lab and a $1.2 million track with a high-tech surface that makes it one of only five such tracks in the world?
Or because the trainers and staff -- some of whom are championship athletes themselves -- are on hand to help whip them into shape and serve as mentors?
Whatever the reason, local business owners, community leaders, and county and city officials, welcome them with open arms and are grateful to the NTC for helping to strengthen the local economy in many ways people may not even realize.
"It (NTC) is a true gem of a training facility and it has put Lake County on the map for many people who may otherwise have never heard of Clermont or any of its neighboring communities...," said Adam Sumner, Lake County's senior economic development and tourism coordinator. "The total economic impact the NTC has had on the area since it opened is amazing."
The NTC, situated on 120 acres on the campus of South Lake Hospital, opened in 2001. Over the years, it has grown into a major hub in the community, providing a fitness center for all ages and levels of ability, a rehabilitation and sports medicine program managed by the hospital, and a home for local youth sports programs.
The NTC also trains athletes from 30 nations, hosts tournaments for hundreds of college, national and international teams, all while generating millions of dollars for the local economy.
Some of the sports hosted by NTC include track and field, soccer, synchronized swimming, lacrosse, rugby, swimming and softball.
According to South Lake Hospital's COO Paul Johns, approximately 10,000 athletes in training and pros "come through here" each year.
The NTC Softball tournaments alone, he said, have generated about $12 million over the years since 2008. The tourneys were started by former Olympic gold medalist turned orthopedic surgeon Dot Richardson, now the NTC's coordinator.
And it's not just the teams of athletes who are coming in for tournaments, but family members, friends and fans. While here, they all have to find places to sleep, eat, attend church and live for weeks at a time.
During the six-week spring focus earlier this year, the NTC hosted at least 212 teams, Johns said.
The spring focus has already received commitments from 192 college teams next year.
Sumner said the county has what's called a "tourism impact model" it uses to measure the total economic impact of various events throughout the county.
The county also rates and decides what events to support based on the model, which measures such financial averages such as how much money will be generated from hotel rooms, how much might be spent per day on food, gas, shopping, etc., and how much the athletes or teams contribute to an event.
For the Fast Sports National Championship Softball Tournament that was played from July 9-Aug. 4, Sumner said the county's estimate was that the NTC brought in $1.79 million, including 2,600 hotel nights.
Heads in beds
Terry March, the general manager of the Fairfield Inn and Suites Hotel in Clermont -- who also serves on the Board of Directors of the Tourist Development Council -- said the NTC works closely with county officials and other organizations like the South Lake Chamber of Commerce, businesses in the area and others to ensure as much as possible, that those visiting are able to stay somewhere in Lake County, if not in Clermont.
"The goal is to keep the teams and their 'followers' -- which March said is what they call the friends, family, trainers and others the teams and athletes bring with them -- in Lake County so that we can collect the bed or occupancy taxes during their visits, instead of giving that up to Orange or Polk county.
"It's called 'heads in beds' and the NTC has done such a great job with its programs, that it extremely impacts us all in a very positive way," March said. "I know that most of our business on the weekends at the hotel year-round is made up of people here for softball-related activities and in March, when it's in full swing, we and all the hotels in the entire area are full."
Johns said it's more than softball, too.
For example, he said, for four weeks in December, the Wiggins Rugby League from England will be in town.
Soccer also brings in people from throughout Florida for Saturday games, not to mention the NTC Phoenix, the facility's professional women's soccer team that started training this year, which brings in even more people.
Regardless of the sport, Johns said the NTC keeps updated lists of upcoming events and competitions on its web site so area businesses can gauge their business, promotional activity and marketing strategies around that. Visitors are also provided with lists of local hotels, restaurants and other accommodations, provided by the chamber, to sift through.
"We have a relationship with surrounding facilities and they get to know when some of these big events are taking place at the NTC," Johns said. "We help by identifying the various hotels in South Lake County and throughout Lake County to visitors and in turn, they tend to fill up fast, depending on the proximity to us. Nearby restaurants also benefit."
Softball may be a big draw during its season, but it just might be track and field that sustains the most people on a year-round basis.
NTC Coaches/Trainers Dennis Mitchell and Lance Bauman -- both world renowned athletes -- have professional teams made up of athletes from all over the world that train with them at the NTC.
Because of that, the NTC has become a training ground for triathlon and track and field super athletes, such as Tyson gay, Justin Gatlin, Kellie Wells, David Payne, Damu Cherry, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Roman Sloudnov, Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie, Aleen Bailey, Jason Smyth, Lysi Halkides, Lisa Bentley and Jarrod Shoemaker.
Mitchell said many of his "Star Athletics Pro Team" members, are here from places such as the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Jamaica -- in addition to Florida. Mitchell said they stay for 8- to 10-month stints and many either rent or buy homes in town.
"Many of my team members have moved here to train with me. Some rent here for the majority of the year and some have purchased homes. It just depends on their budget," Mitchell said.
'Why keep traveling?'
Track and Field star and Olympian Tyson Gay, a member of Baumann's "Pure Athletics Pro Team," said he purchased a home in Clermont years ago.
"I own my own home," Gay said, adding that by paying taxes on his home, plus living, working and playing in the area, he believes he and his family are helping to stimulate the economy.
Another is Triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker.
"The NTC is second to none in the U.S.," said Jarrod Shoemaker, a well-known Olympic triathlete who with his wife Alicia Kaye, another triathlete, started training at the NTC more than three years ago.
At first, the couple would travel from their home in Massachusetts to Clermont and stay with friends for the duration of their training.
Since then, they've moved to the area permanently.
"We thought, why keep traveling back and forth?" he said.
Shoemaker also said the NTC is of close proximity to the airport, so he can easily pick up friends and other athletes who may visit him.
While here, he's also seen that many athletes require chiropractic care, massages, physical therapists and equipment.
Shoemaker has also started hosting "The Clermont Draft Legal Challenge" -- an annual triathlon at Lake Louisa each year -- attracting athletes from around the world.
Sommer Sports, based locally, also hosts 'The Great Floridian Triathlon' and other events each year, but the NTC remains at the top of the list for its ability to lure athletes and visitors consistently on a "year-round" basis.
Mitchell said that many athletes decide to make Clermont their permanent home, rather than travel back and forth.
"I know many of my team members have moved here to train with me," Mitchell said.
In doing that, they are also strengthening the local economy because not only are they now having to pay property taxes for a home, but are purchasing gas, food, groceries and clothes, plus seeing doctors, purchasing equipment, getting jobs and welcoming guests of their own to Lake County.
"In the economic development world, the NTC is what you call an 'economic driver,' Sumner said, explaining that county officials label organizations with that term when they stimulate other businesses in the industry besides themselves with the services they provide.
For example, he said, it's not only the NTC which benefits from the people who train there. Local retail, medical, sports, food and housing establishments also show increased business.
"The benefits of the NTC keep 'trickling up' through the system, therefore fueling the local economy," Sumner said.
Just ask the people at Crispers, a Clermont restaurant which Baumann touts as probably "one of the healthiest restaurants" for athletes.
Because of that, Crispers about one year ago forged a partnership with the track teams, providing monthly allowances for food in return for "tweets" and Facebook posts letting their friends know where they are and how they like it.
"We would see so many athletes here all the time anyway, so we thought partnering with them would not only help them, but us as well," Crispers Assistant Manager Jennifer Ralosky said.
March, from The Fairfield Inn, said many of the visitors who stay there ask for lists of non-chain restaurants and attractions in the area, in addition to caterers and entertainers.
Many teams, she said, may not have transportation or may want a "night in," so they bring the food and whatever else they need, to the hotel.
"There are so many facets to the impact the NTC has on the community," she said.
South Lake Hospital spokesperson Kim Couch added that "on one occasion before the 2012 Olympics, we had one event where about 200 community members got to meet many of the Olympic athletes training at the NTC for track and field. So besides the economic impact, for that moment, we were able to provide many people with a peek into what their aspirations can lead to."
The future looks good for the NTC, too, which Johns said has additional programs and partnerships in mind for many years to come.
"The NTC is a tremendous asset to have in the county," Sumner said. "We are glad to have them here and we love seeing them grow and thrive."