The nonprofit group Greater Regional Erie Athletic Team Training, which bought the former Family First Sports Park in Summit Township in 2017, has sold the facility.
The sale of what’s been known since 2018 as ErieBank Sports Park was confirmed Thursday afternoon by Robert Catalde, an Erie lawyer and president of G.R.E.A.T.T. — founded in 2013 to expand the amount of ice time available to local skaters and hockey players.
The property was sold to two separate for-profit buyers with their own plans for their sections of the park.
The first of those is a group called Erie Sports Investments, led by Troy Bingham and Sheldon van Deventer, who grew up in the same neighborhood in South Africa and went to Gannon University on soccer scholarships.
Erie Sports Investments has purchased about 30 acres of land, including what had been known as the Golf Dome, a dozen outdoor soccer fields and the former Fun Zone.
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The second sale, also completed Thursday, transfers ownership of the main ErieBank Sports Park fieldhouse, which includes two hockey rinks and basketball courts.
Buyers of that property are a local group doing business as BBT Hockey LLC. The owners of that group have not consented to the release of their names, Catalde said.
However, the address listed for BBT Hockey is 3514 State St., which is the address for both Lilly Broadcasting and Erie News Now. A message left Friday for Brian Lilly, CEO of Lilly Broadcasting, was not immediately returned.
A changing landscape
Bingham said he and Van Deventer have been working at what will be known as Erie Sports Park for the last month, hauling away garbage, trimming fields and transforming what will now be known as the Sports Dome.
The dome’s two-level driving range and miniature golf course have been removed, making space for three indoor soccer fields or two baseball or softball fields.
Extensive repairs already have been made to the former Fun Zone, which has been unused in ecent year.
What will now be known as the Fun Center is expected to be ready by spring. Offerings will include batting cages, a go-cart track and a 36-hole miniature golf course, Bingham said. An area that once was home to bumper boats will be used to build what he called a “beach arena” with space for beach volleyball and other events.
“There is nowhere else in Erie where you can ride go-carts,” Bingham said. “Miniature golf is all but extinct and everyone I talk to says we need batting cages. Those things are all coming back in 2022.”
A challenging run
G.R.E.A.T.T.’s ownership of the facility faced challenges from the beginning, starting with the collapse of the park’s golf dome in December 2017.
After investing millions to install two new ice rinks and to make other improvements, a shutdown prompted by COVID-19 left the facility empty for months in 2020.
COVID-related shutdowns led to the cancellation of about 20 tournaments and $680,000 in lost rental time, Catalde said.
More recently, another blow came in March when G.R.E.A.T.T lost its bid to be exempt from property taxes. leaving the nonprofit with an annual tax bill of about $100,000.
No debt, big plans
Bingham, who said Erie Sports Investments paid cash for its portion of the property, said he feels confident he and his partner can develop a facility that will be both profitable and serve the community.
“We have no debt on the facility and we are prepared to do what we need to do to get it back to the state it needs to be in,” Bingham said.
He said he and his business partner grew up in the same poor neighborhood in South Africa and that owning a sports park represents a dream come true.
This isn’t the first step into the business world for either of them. Bingham, who worked with a partner to develop Maumee Soccer Center near Toledo after graduating from Gannon, said he has owned and operated a number of businesses over the last 15 years.
Bingham owns Consulting House USA and recently opened Lumi Cafe in Gannon University’s Center for Business Ingenuity at 900 State St.
Van Deventer, who stayed in Erie following his graduation, is the owner of Tech Excellence in Erie and of a wedding venue in Clymer, New York.
Bingham, who lived in Australia for the past 16 years, said he and his wife moved to Erie to follow their sons, both of whom won soccer scholarships at Gannon.
Bingham said he was a fan of Family First during his college days and was surprised to see that the facility was available.
“This is our new hometown for the foreseeable future,” he said. “This is a sizable investment and we want to see this project through. We have a three-year plan to bring this park back to what it was.”
What hasn’t been sold on the former Family First property is the dormitory that houses the Pennsylvania International Academy, which is owned by Glen Renaud, whose family developed Family First.
The dorm was used for about two weeks in April of this year to house 146 migrant children who were originally detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bingham said he and Renaud are in discussions about a possible sale of the dormitory.
A bittersweet moment
Catalde, who led the nonprofit organization that owned the sports park, said Thursday that he’s comfortable with the sale.
“On behalf of the board, we are thrilled with the potential that the new buyers bring to the facility and we are confident they will carry out our original vision and improve upon that vision to make the facility one of best sporks park in this part of the country,” he said.
Catalade said his group has been approached in the past by potential buyers.
“But the board was never comfortable transferring the property to anyone that wasn’t interested in keeping it a sports park.”
Catalde, who noted that G.R.E.A.T.T. had been able to negotiate some reduction of its debts, said the proceeds from the sale will enable it to retired its debt.
In the end, he said, selling ErieBank Sports Park was bittersweet.
“It was a labor of love for the last years of my life,” he said. “I can sleep really well at night knowing that BBT Hockey and Erie Sports Investments are going to invest in the park.”