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Sports Authority members say funding is 'money well spent'

One little known committee has had a big impact on the city of Mitchell. Behind closed doors in a back room of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce office, 14 representatives make decisions that help attract thousands of people to Mitchell each ...

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Members of the Mitchell Sports & Events Authority meet on Tuesday at the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

One little known committee has had a big impact on the city of Mitchell.

Behind closed doors in a back room of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce office, 14 representatives make decisions that help attract thousands of people to Mitchell each year. Those committee members, and committee chair Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey, make up the Sports & Events Authority.

Since its inception in late 2013, the SEA has helped bring about 70 events to town by providing funds to local organizations bidding to host sports tournaments and other events in Mitchell. While some committee members admit a significant percentage of the public may be unaware of the group's existence, they agreed the SEA has a positive economic impact on the community.

"Our sales tax is up every year, and you've got to believe that these tournaments coming to town are a big contributing factor toward that," Toomey said.

The SEA is a taxpayer-funded committee that kicked off in 2013 when the City Council approved a $1 tax on nightly hotel rentals, with 50 cents going toward the SEA and 50 cents funding the second sheet of ice at the Mitchell Activities Center. Councilman Jeff Smith, who sits on the committee, expects the second sheet of ice garnered the lion's share of the attention when the tax was implemented, but that hasn't hampered the success of the SEA.

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In the years since its creation, the SEA has collected $214,219.50 to put toward local events and used at the discretion of the group vying to bring an event to Mitchell. Of the amount collected, $105,267.32 has been invested back into local events.

The funding distributed to local organizations supports events like the South Dakota Amateur Softball Association women's tournament that brought nearly 60 teams to Mitchell or the Wesleyan Winter Classic indoor soccer tournament that brought more than 100 teams to Mitchell.

One tournament hosted annually in Mitchell for more than 25 years until 2010 could make its return, thanks in part to the SEA.

Knutson said the SEA assisted in the bidding process to bring the Special Olympics Basketball Tournament and about 1,200 athletes, coaches and families back to Mitchell for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Jim Johnston, owner of Harve's Sport Shop and Harve's Pro Print and tournament director for the South Dakota State Amateur Baseball Association tournaments in Mitchell, believes the SEA assistance has helped bring the baseball tournament back to Mitchell for a third consecutive year in 2016. Without the SEA's assistance, he said some organizations are not able to gain any profits to put back into their association for their time and effort hosting an event.

"Without that kind of funding, there are certain groups that really don't want to go out and get events, because they do a lot of work and at the end of the day they don't get anything out of it," Johnston said. "But the city gains a lot, so it's a way that the city shows appreciation for what they've done."

Smith said the group recently gave a presentation to the Rotary Club of Mitchell, which he hoped would boost awareness of the SEA and encourage organizations to seek some of the group's $108,952.18 in available funding.

"The people we meet with on a weekly basis were going, 'We had no idea that was even in Mitchell,' " Smith said about the SEA presentation to the Rotary Club.

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At the SEA's monthly meeting, local business, event facility and hotel representatives meet with elected officials to hold an informal discussion about how to distribute funding and hear pitches by local groups to receive available funds. Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Katie Knutson, who sits in on the monthly meetings, said the committee puts an emphasis on funding projects that keep people in town overnight, occur outside of the typical summer tourism season or those that will attract large crowds.

One of the more successful events-according to Johnston, Knutson and Smith-was the Geico Hot Bike Tour that rolled through Mitchell in September.

Knutson estimates the tour brought 300 to 500 motorcycle riders to Mitchell for an overnight stay as they made a trip from Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Billings, Montana. Thousands of locals also attended the event on Main Street that featured motorcycle stunt riders, live music and food and drink vendors. Smith said the SEA provided $10,000 to help bring the motorcycle tour to Mitchell.

"That was something we would have never, ever had without this committee and this kind of funding," Johnston said of the Hot Bike Tour.

Events like the Hot Bike Tour have also contributed to a jump in hotel occupancy rates since the SEA began in 2013. When the SEA was formed, Knutson said collection of hotel occupancy data began, as well. Since 2013, when annual hotel occupancy settled at 46.2 percent, the occupancy rose to 48.7 percent in 2015, which Knutson said is a notable increase.

Sales tax collection is also on the rise since the SEA began supporting local events through the tax on hotel-goers. While it cannot be directly attributed to the success of the SEA, first and second penny sales tax collected by the city has risen by $347,160.76 since 2013 and the entertainment tax collected has risen by $78,996.62 since 2013.

SEA looks to increase awareness, accountability

Despite being a relatively new member to the committee, Toomey has already pinpointed some areas where he would like to see the group improve.

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Toomey said he wanted to see a return on investment on the $105,000 the committee has spent so far.

"We know it's got a benefit, we just don't know how much," Toomey said. "There needs to be a better way to define how we're tracking that money."

Toomey likened the way the SEA hands out money to a bank loan. When someone wants a loan, he said, they're asked to detail how that money will be used and how they expect to make the money back.

Toomey also hopes to find a better way to track the economic benefit of each investment made by the SEA, although he's not sure what that method would be.

According to Toomey, some hotel owners and managers have sought out a quantitative benefit they are receiving from the tax on their business. Toomey suggested hotel management could ask hotel-goers why they are in town, but he said that idea has not received positive feedback.

Instead, Toomey said the SEA will host an annual event for hotel and motel owners to meet with the SEA and discuss the tangible economic benefits they receive from the tax.

Aside from improved accountability, committee members also admit they need to increase awareness of the SEA throughout the community.

While the SEA has supported dozens of events since 2013, the committee is still relatively new, and some members realize public awareness of the group may be low.

"To be honest with you, a lot of people don't even know that the committee exists," Johnston said.

Although there may be a need to boost accountability and awareness, one decision Smith said the committee made right from the beginning is utilizing a volunteer-based committee.

When the committee was first being developed, Smith said hiring a full-time employee to manage the SEA was considered, but it was determined the cost of an employee dedicated solely to the SEA would drain the committee's bank account.

"If we hire somebody, have an office, set them up and have all of the overhead and so forth, there wasn't going to be a whole lot of money left over to try to get events to town," Smith said. "So then we went the volunteer route, and I think it's worked out pretty good."

Although the committee has been successful in bringing events to town, its members feel, its funding is set to expire this year.

The three-year agreement to fund the SEA with a 50-cent tax on hotel rooms will come to a close in August, but renewal of the tax has support from Knutson, Johnston, Toomey and Smith.

"I definitely think it's money well spent," Johnston said.

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