Many people may look at a high school baseball field in the Florida Panhandle and not immediately agree that hotel bed tax funds, which have significant restrictions on their use, could be used for a project like the renewal or replacement of a baseball field. Well, Gates argues, the baseball field serves a tourism function.
“Niceville hosts ‘Kentucky week,’ which is two weeks during the spring,” Gates told the city council, “High school [teams] are coming out here on their spring break. They come down here to stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants and shop in our stores. They play from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, for two weeks. And It’s hosted here. So, a lot of tourism comes here.”
Gates added that the Niceville High School ball field is opened up to 14 and under and 15 and under baseball teams for their use in the summers. He said that the field already hosts thousands of visitors every year.
Bryan Gates‘s son will start his junior year at Niceville High School in 2022. Gates and his son look forward to the spring, when the patriarch of the Gates Clan, Bryan’s dad, can come to The Hill, NHS’s baseball stadium, and watch the youngest Gates man play baseball for the Eagles.
But time hasn’t been kind to the stadium where the youngest Gates plays baseball. “The Hill” as it is known – and has emblazoned in white letters on the back of the facility facing the road – was constructed by Niceville High School Baseball Coach Dave Garner in the late 1970s. Last year, a volunteer fell through a rotting floorboard and could have been seriously injured, according to Gates.
Other issues to tackle: there is no safe way for spectators to enter and exit the bleachers when they are at capacity and scouts for pros and for colleges have no place to do their scouting for their respective teams.
It’s why Gates approached the Niceville City Council to ask for their help in using some tourism development tax dollars to help build out a new press box and seating for the High School’s Baseball Stadium.
The City of Niceville – and the rest of the county may now use Tourism Development Tax money, also known as hotel tax money on projects. This money became available for tourism-related projects in Niceville after a vote in 2021, which expanded the tourism taxing district to the entire county.
Previously, only projects located in Destin, Okaloosa Island and parts of Fort Walton Beach were able to use these funds.
According to Gates, a re-do of the baseball stadium’s seating facilities would cost in the neighborhood of $300,000. The city, which has some influence over where those dollars are spent, can lobby on behalf of the stadium at the Tourism Development Council meetings in the future. Gates asked the council to consider funding half of it out of their allocation of bed tax funds – the other half, Gates is confident, can be crowdfunded in a city like Niceville. “If you’ve seen High School, that track was fundraised [for] $175,000. The high jump was a $10,000 donation from Gatorade, they did a video for the high jump stuff. The soccer scoreboard on Twin Oaks was done by a GoFundMe by a very motivated female soccer player. The baseball and softball lighting was put in using donations. Covered batting cages were donations. And if you haven’t been hit up for the [Niceville High School] quarterback club, you’re probably not a resident of Niceville,” said Gates.
“It’s a shovel-ready project,” Gates said, “So that is the key, it’s a shovel-ready project; tear it down, build it. It can either be done this year, or next year in between baseball seasons, and we are ready to go.”
The Council did not give much away as to what they were thinking from the dais after the presentation. Councilwoman Cathy Alley asked about total cost – and Councilman Abner Williams cited the poor economy as a reason to be wary of new construction or new projects. You know, we’ve received a lot of numerous requests from the, from local schools with situations like this. And, you know, during this historic economic uncertainty, it’s tough to fill with his request,” Councilman Williams said to Gates.
One woman on a motorized scooter addressed the council next. She told the council she currently fights Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that adversely affects the brain’s ability to communicate with the body.
She told the group that this sort of improvement to the current seating situation Niceville High School’s baseball stadium has is absolutely essential for people like her to have the ability to enjoy the use of those facilities. “The minute you talked about anything handicap, I can identify, when I was able to go in the football stadium, I’m always thinking like, why don’t they have a bar for us to hold on to go up those stairs? She added, “So I think that is very important for people. But the problem is this. If you don’t have anybody handicapped, so you don’t think about it, not that you don’t care. But you don’t have to deal with it. But when you have to deal with it, then everything anyplace you go you noticed they don’t have this. They don’t have that. Why don’t they have this? And so all I’m saying is, if you’ve got the money, donate the money, because it will be well worth somebody not falling down the stairs, trying to go to a football or basketball football game or baseball game to enjoy the grandchildren or their children.”
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