It seems like everyone involved with the new Paradise Sports Complex in eastern Collier County can barely contain themselves when describing the multi-use facility that recently hosted its first national event, a Football University (FBU) Showcase, July 9-11.
“I think it’s going to be even more of a smash hit than we can ever imagine,” said Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala. “That’s a big statement there. It’s going to put us on a new tourism level. It’s something very different and very unique for our area. This is going to put us on a variety of different stages, a variety of different sports. From amateur to professional.”
“It’s a nice crown jewel,” gushed Amy Fouty, the complex’s General Manager, who was hired seven months ago. “This complex really speaks, from bottom to top, to the community. There will be something for everybody. I think the county has really outdone themselves with the details of this place. It doesn’t matter who comes into this complex when it’s done. You’re going to feel like you’ve just entered a professional facility and it’s just going to be a special experience. I think that is probably the neatest thing about it.
“We’re going to provide customer service you would expect at Disney or going to the Rose Bowl or a professional event of that caliber. That’s the kind of service that we train and is expected of our staff. It’s just amazing the thought process the county put into this complex. How many different things to support this community and to support tourism that we will be doing here. It is so exciting.”
How did Collier County get involved in such a diverse sports complex? And who is the catalyst? Collier County’s Executive Manager of Corporate Business Operations Sean Callahan does not hesitate in his endorsement of Nick Casalanguida, the Deputy County Manager.
“This was his vision,” Callahan said flatly. “He really fought and drove this place to our board and everybody else.”
So, what does Casalanguida have to say about this project that others call his “baby.” Well, he has a lot to say. And it is immediately obvious that he is totally locked into this project and his fingerprints are all over its execution. His background in construction and due diligence are proving to be just what is needed to steer such a massive project. He rattles off the details of the sports complex with ease.
“It’s got something for everybody to do,” Casalanguida started. “From the spectator, to the player, to the athlete. Twenty-one fields. Did you see the exercise area that we built? They’re going to be putting turf over there pretty soon, with the pad’s underneath. It’s going to be fully turfed. In Customs in Miami right now are eight pieces of equipment that’s Icelandic Russian outdoor training equipment that’s coming in. So it is going to be an elite amateur athletic training paradise. You’ve got functional fitness designed by Move Strong out of Chattanooga. We forced them to work together with USA Shade to integrate into the shade structures, which came out beautiful. They’re actually going to form an LLC and start a new company based on what they’ve done down here.
“Here we’ve got this outdoor training area, you can run around the lake, each corner has fitness areas. You can come into the fitness area. We have a national fitness court; that’s free. We have an outdoor yoga training area. We have an outdoor gym, which will probably be a membership fee of $30 a month. You’ve got a climbing wall; I’m talking to two guys who want to invest in two 80’ climbing walls on Field 5. If I can get them to land, you’ve got one of the largest climbing areas in Florida, all integrated. Their market is a 2 to 3-hour drive. People can come and spend a day. We’re in negotiations with a resort hotel right now that wants to put in 500 rooms and an 80,000 square foot water park right next door to our complex.”
Whew! And believe it or not, Casalanguida is just scratching the surface of what this facility will have to offer when it’s completed, possibly as early as 2022.
“We’re only about 25% done,” Casalanguida said. “We continue to clear land to the east. And when the stadium and the great lawn and amphitheater are done the complex is going to have another cool look to it.”
Currently complete at the Paradise Sports Complex is the welcome center, four combination soccer, football, lacrosse fields, and a market for food and snacks. There are a number of other projects that are being diligently worked on, with a Labor Day public opening in the crosshairs. Commissioner Fiala visited the other day and came away stunned.
“This is going to set us on a new level,” Fiala gushed. “It’s just great. I’m thrilled to death with it. Once you’ve been there, you feel you need to go every week because it changes so quickly.”
“We’re just started to get things going,” Fouty said. “We had FBU Topgun here last weekend. It’s a high school combine-style football event. There were kids from all over the country here. They do a lot of skills, timings, stuff like that. We had middle school, freshmen and sophomore kids here. I believe there were 850 attendees. It was run by FBU, it wasn’t our event to run.
“We currently have four soccer fields. What you’re seeing right now is one corner of the complex. Collier County will be starting the other five fields, hopefully by the end of the year. They have a lot of clearing to do yet. Hopefully, those five fields will come online this time next year. They’re all sized out for soccer, but we can play football and lacrosse on them also. We can do youth kickball, we can do youth softball just by painting and redesigning, we can even do youth baseball out here. It’s really an incredible multi-use project.”
The scope of the project makes it special not just by Collier County, South Florida, or Florida standards. Those in the know say it will take its place on a much grander stage.
“I think it’s one of the nicest complexes in the country,” Casalanguida said confidently, “and I’ve been told that from people who have seen other ones.”
Fouty, who spent 21 years in the Big 10 in charge of the turf at the University of Michigan and Michigan State football stadiums, echoes Casalanguida’s sentiments.
“This is unique to the entire United States,” Fouty said. “This whole property when you see it built out is 180 acres. There are a lot of places that have large community sports complexes, but we will have a stadium here where we can host professional or semi-professional sports. Or host concerts or host state championships or regional championships. That is very unique. As well as having the space of the great lawn. There’s an amphitheater over there where we can host outdoor concerts, outdoor Shakespeare.”
Callahan thinks the stadium gives the complex its biggest wow factor.
“I think it’s definitely going to be the stadium over there once it’s done,” Callahan said. “I can see us scaling up to do professional sports there in the future. You look at the big great lawn with the amphitheater concept. I think you can look at some larger musical performances there. You don’t have that size of a venue in Naples that you can utilize for those types of events. That’s going to help us draw some marquee types of events.”
Casalanguida dives deeper into the incredibly versatile stadium and the potential it holds.
“You look at major league baseball and major league soccer, they’re in stadiums that hold 40,000. For the United Soccer League second tier—the smaller teams that come in, this is the nicest complex in the Tier 2 market. We’ve already got interest from USL expansion teams that want to come down here. It’s pretty exciting, huh? And for Naples, that’s the market we want to be in. We don’t want a 40,000-seat stadium, that’s not our style. We want to have something that the community can embrace. A team that needs 8,000 to 12,000 seats would be perfect for this market. Right now, there are 3,500 permanent seats with another 2,000 in the berms, but we’ve designed the stadium to go up to 12,000 if we need to. We’ve done the west side at 3,500. Now we want to start working with end users as they get a flavor of it.
“What’s the opportunity? We have one person who wants to do an expansion team out of Denmark in the USL. Wanted to buy the whole thing for $20 million. We said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ Then we’ve got another person who wants to replicate the west side of the stadium we built on the east side and wants to acquire the rights to that as part of bringing a team here. I said, ‘Now that we would entertain.’ That would be great for Naples.”
The details of the new stadium are fascinating—and state of the art. Casalanguida has already thought about the versatile stadium as a concert venue.
“Concerts? We’re all over it,” he said. “The amphitheater, we built the stage underneath the big screen. We have an 18’ tall by 32’ widescreen that’s actually 20’ in the air. It’s double duty. We’ve designed the stage to serve as the stage that can go into the amphitheater and also go into the stadium. So we can pull up the drink rails, extend the stage and now you have a concert in the stadium. Or you pull up the drink rails and decide you want to do something more intimate, 1,000 people on the great lawn. A World Cup watch party or a Super Bowl event.”
It’s obvious that this project was not conceived by amateurs. Quite the contrary. The heavy hitters were brought in for the design and construction.
“We quickly hired a construction manager, Manhattan,” Casalanguida said. “Manhattan’s done the Texas Rangers, Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars stadiums; so they’ve done sports stuff. They’re our construction arm. Then we hired Populous. Populous did Wimbledon. We brought the best sports designer and the best sports contractor on board,” he said with a satisfied laugh. “Created what I’ll call an amazing team. We went through the four stages of development: storming, forming, norming, and performing. We argued a lot. We came up with some really cool designs and we just kept tweaking.
“The stadium itself, the platform under the big Jumbotron, Populous said, ‘Nobody likes to sit in a 19 seat anymore—especially with COVID—and enjoy an event.’ Today’s people like to be more in what they call a party atmosphere—more social. Round tables, fans, we’ve designed both second–floor decks of the stadium on each end to be like party decks; there’s drink rails. In the stadium underneath the scoreboard we’ve made a party deck too. So literally you can pull up picnic tables or round tables or lean up against the rails and watch the event. And when we want to, we can pull those out and it turns into a stage. The stadium and the amphitheater are integrated. You actually could have a paid concert inside the stadium and have the video portion showing outside the stadium if people didn’t want to sit inside the stadium.”
Fouty also sees concerts as being a big part of what happens in the stadium and its integrated amphitheater that abuts the great lawn.
“I believe concerts will be a big part of what we do here,” Fouty reasons. “Everything is outdoor. We’re looking at relatively small concerts—anything from 3,500 to 10,000 people in our stadium. In the amphitheater space and the great lawn area, we’re probably looking at 1,000 to 2,000 people. So, it offers a couple different size—or feel—events.”
Fouty is actually an employee of Sports Force Parks, the company Collier County has hired to operate Paradise Sports Complex. Casalanguida explains why the county turned to Sports Force rather than trying to operate it themselves.
“We have a great partner in Sports Force,” he said. “They work in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Sandusky, Ohio and Atlanta, and now they’re in this market. Very professional company; all about quality and customer experience.
“It’s way beyond what our county people can do. We’re good at the parks and recreation; I’ll call it basic services. This is a… I’ll call it Ritz Carlton Tier 1 provider. If you’re going to build a place like this, you want it to be managed that way. These guys know what they’re doing. They’re booking people all the way from California to New England to come down here. They’ve got relationships with colleges. Way beyond what our parks and recreation people could do.
“Amy Fouty is the General Manager for Sports Force. Her peer’s Marissa Fahey, who will be the General Manager for the county. Amy knows how to program a facility, and then their marketing team. They have three or four marketers here, and then they have marketing back in Atlanta, Jim and Brian Storm. Brian just redid the Green Bay Packers stadium and a couple of other fields. He’s a designer; he works with them. Our other partner worked with Cal Ripken Baseball. So he’s got a huge relationship with baseball and marketing with those guys. So they’ve got a good team.”
One of the key building blocks of the project was the team Casalanguida took on a fact-finding mission during the planning stages of the complex.
“Before we went into design, we put together an eight-man team and we visited every sports complex in Florida and we went as far north as Ohio,” Casalanguida said. “We just interviewed people. ‘What’s good, what’s bad? What works, what doesn’t work?’ We took that information and went into the design criteria; we called it the brain room. We designed, tweaked; we came up with seven versions. The one thing that was cool, that I kept saying to people was, ‘What do people do in the downtime? Why would people want to stay here all day?’ So, we had the great lawn, but we said, ‘That’s not enough.’
“So then we created the bar pavilion area and the outdoor training area. We said, ‘Why would people want to be here all day?’ Live music, TVs, amphitheater, work out, what athletes like to do more than anything else is drink beer. So, let’s build a beer and wine pavilion and bring in food trucks. Let’s steal a little bit of what the lady did in Bayshore with Celebration Park and do a food truck park with live music. Then I said, ‘What else do people like?’ They want to be by a beach. So we created a beach with beach volleyball. ‘What else do they like?’ They like sitting around the fire in the wintertime. So we created four fire pits. Then we said, ‘What else do people like to do?’ Well, not everyone’s an athlete. So we’ve got a bocce pit, Teqball, lawn darts. So there’s something for everybody.”
The beer and wine pavilion and food trucks are integrated and sit adjacent to a beautiful lake with a manmade beach on one side and the outdoor fitness area on the other.
“The Cove is our outdoor bar area,” Fouty said. “It will be open to the public. We will have a food truck area, with stalls and hook-ups. We will have beer on tap and wine available. The last piece of this space, which is incredibly unique, is an outdoor fitness pavilion. We did all kinds of research when we were looking at operating this place and there isn’t another outdoor CrossFit location like it.”
While Callahan sees the stadium as the biggest wow factor at Paradise Sports Complex, both Casalanguida and Fouty point to the versatility of the complex as its most amazing feature.
“When we build this whole place out,” Fouty said, “we could have a baseball tournament going on, a football tournament going on, a soccer tournament, a lacrosse tournament and we could have a concert in the stadium and have public access to the great lawn space and the fitness pavilion—all at the same time. This will be unique to the United States. This is a complex that will be modeled all over the country.”
Casalanguida couldn’t agree more as he said, “They’re all their own discreet functions based on the way we’ve designed the complex. You have seven access points. So if you’re going to the little league tournament, you go to Gate 7, pull in and park, and find your tournament. If you’re going to a concert, you go to Gate 1. The Sports Force folks are going to put together a multi-media online feature where you can actually reserve your own parking space.”
After just one event, Casalanguida and Fouty are already seeing how visitors to Paradise Sports Complex are taking advantage of the luxury amenities that the Naples-Marco Island area offer.
“Most of the people who drove here came last Sunday,” Casalanguida said, “spent the whole week on vacation here leading up to the combine. So you know, if you’re going to go all the way down to Florida and have a three–day tournament, what better place to vacation than Naples?”
“We want to keep tourism dollars in Collier County,” Fouty reasoned. “We’re going to make a family vacation. Marco’s what, a half an hour down the road from here? We’re 20 minutes from downtown Naples at the most. It’s a great location, right of I-75. I mean, I just have to pinch myself. Who figured this out? This is too good to be true,” she said with a laugh.
There’s even a plan to accommodate those who may not have the appetite for a luxury resort or hotel stay.
“We’ve even got an overnight campground,” Casalanguida said. “We’re having two sheriff’s deputies live there. So our construction trailers right now are really three–bedroom trailer homes. When we’re done, it will be turned over to a sheriff’s deputy to live. You come in and there’s 50 overnight campground spaces. So there’s a lot of folks who maybe aren’t as affluent who like to drive around and do sports and spend three or four days in a campground. You’ll be able to stay on campus for $50 a night.”
Wow! There can’t be more. Can there be? Of course there is.
“There’s one fieldhouse planned,” Casalanguida said, “80,000 square feet—it’s not funded yet. It would have 12 basketball courts that equate to like 16 volleyball courts. Wrestling, cheerleading, second–floor track. It’s designed, it concepted, it’s laid out, it’s just not funded yet. We’ve got about $9 million from sales tax from the hurricane money set aside for that. We applied for a mitigation grant. The whole project I’d guess is about $26 million. We’re pretty confident we might get that mitigation grant.
“So when you look at nine and nine, you’re at 18. I think the board would cough up the other eight and get it built in the next couple of years. That would be a Collier County hurricane shelter. We could put about 1,200 people in there. We’ve designed it for negative airflow, generators and a commissary. So people in Lee County would have Hertz Arena and we would have our place.”
The future looks very rosy for the new Paradise Sports Complex. Fouty sums things up pretty well as she mused, “We’re going to expand the concept of what a complex like this can be. It’s truly an honor—and it’s very humbling to be asked to lead the team that’s going to operate a facility like this.”