Image courtesy of The Bridge Sports Complex
When the city of Bridgeport, West Virginia (population 9,257) opened a state-of-the-art sports and recreation complex in 2021, they were confident it would be popular with the local community. At 160,000 square feet of space, the Bridge Sports Complex’s massive facility includes six hardwood basketball courts, a 25-yard competition swimming pool, a fitness center with training rooms, an elevated walking track, meeting, and event spaces, and more. There’s something for everyone – including the thousands of out-of-town visitors that come for sports tournaments each year.
“Everybody’s got what they think the Bridge should be – that’s why I say we’ve unleashed a monster. And they’re all correct – it’s a fantastic membership facility, you know we have more than 5,000 members. But it’s also a sports tourism property, and I keep impressing upon the community that we’re bringing in millions of dollars to this city that we wouldn’t otherwise bring. And yes, we have restaurant owners selling out of food and we have hotels that are full,” said Bridgeport City Manager Brian Newton. “The Bridge is also spurring growth. We’ve heard people comment that they can live in Bridgeport and get access to something they wouldn’t get anywhere else in West Virginia – the Bridge.”
How can a city of approximately 9,000 residents in rural West Virginia afford to operate and maintain such a huge complex? Most large sports complexes require an operating subsidy to produce big-time economic impact results. In 2022, West Virginia passed the ‘home rule tax,’ often described as an incubator of innovation for the state. Newton reports that sales tax income is a driving factor in the financial stability of the Bridge and an important tool for economic development. “We’re lucky,” said Newton. “We’ve been able to channel those [home rule tax] dollars for this kind of project. Other communities in West Virginia simply took the dollars and it’s become a crutch to their local economy. The Bridge has been a driving factor and a tool to grow Bridgeport.”
The town reported a 6 percent increase in construction permits for new housing units in 2021, something Newton says is rare for West Virginia communities. “Behind this growth,” he states, “is the income of the residents, which is above average for the state, as is the type of clientele the Bridge is attracting to the community.” Per 2021 U.S. census data, the median household income for the state of West Virginia is $50,884, while the median household income for Bridgeport is $84,295, with married families coming in at $119,474. Furthermore, a mobile-data report for the previous 12 months of visitation showed more than 18 percent of Bridgeport’s visitors are in Experian Mosaic’s “Power Elite” category. These are individuals that represent the wealthiest households in the United States. In short, The Bridge Sports Complex has made an already attractive community a more alluring place to live for people who will significantly add to the local economy.
Visitor behavior analysis demonstrates The Bridge’s direct economic benefit to local businesses. Along with frequent visits to a slew of local restaurants such as West Virginia’s only coal-fired pizzeria, Mia Margherita, Mountain State Brewing Company, and Oliverio’s Ristorante, tourists are staying in hotels like TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites as well. Visitors are frequenting retail locations as well. In the last 12 months, upwards of 15 percent of Bridge visitors also visited the local Meadowbrook Mall, 8 percent visited the New Pointe Plaza for shopping, and 8 percent visited the Eastpointe Shopping Center. These visits are generated from a split audience – 51 percent travel from cities more than 39 miles away from the Bridge, and 49 percent of visitors hail from locations closer to home.
Not only is the facility an economic driver for the local community, but a point of pride according to Newton, “The Bridge fits all demographics. You’ve never seen so many seniors in your life out there on weekdays swimming laps. We’ve got several silver sneaker programs and great programs for seniors, like water aerobics. We also have busy professionals and families that love accessing The Bridge. We are really trying to develop world-class instruction – whether that’s sports instruction or fitness instruction. We see people signing up and participating in all kinds of programs. Our community is welcoming, and we have a great local base as well as visitors from Fairmont or Morgantown.”
Since the Bridge opened in 2021, Newton says it has been a learning experience across city staff and departments. The first two years of operation haven’t been without their challenges; balancing tourism with local use, monitoring member versus non-member use during peak times, managing financial versus economic returns, and communicating everything to the local community among the top priorities. Through the highs and lows of the undertaking and operating such an enormous project, Newton says it all comes back to city leadership.
“You know, the thing that has really made a difference is we’ve had very progressive leaders in City Council. They’ve been willing to support the city and focus on what residents wouldn’t see anywhere else. Even though I say it’s the biggest pain in my a** all day long, I tell people I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”