Michael Damico has been organizing recreational sports leagues for the past 10 years, growing his M/ile Sports from 110 to 1,500 adult players, who compete at area parks and fields.
But it has been largely a fair-weather pursuit, with leagues losing interest when winter sets in.
So the Hamburg resident is taking his outdoor business model indoors. With a line of credit from First Niagara Bank, Damico got a 10-year lease for a former auto parts plant and is converting it into a sports complex he plans to open in the fall.
Plans call for the Waterfront Sports and Entertainment Center on Lakeshore Drive in Blasdell to have five turf fields and offer organized leagues and training for soccer, softball, football, kickball, lacrosse and other sports.
"There's a market for it in Buffalo with the cold weather," said Damico, president of M/ile Sports, a not-for-profit corporation. "Going to gyms to work out isn't that much fun; people want to get out and socialize while exercising. And the adult leagues give people that opportunity."
In addition to giving his adult outdoor leagues an indoor home, the complex also aims to become the primary home of the Southtown's youth sports. While there are multiple indoor facilities in the Northtowns, Sahlen's in Elma is the closest in the Southtowns.
"It will fill a void," said Damico, who is also a computer teacher at Hamburg High School. "The lack of an indoor field creates a competitive disadvantage, and an inconvenience. Teams have to go out of town to Elma or Williamsville to train in the winter. So there is a need."
That need galvanized board members of the Hamburg Soccer Club to support Damico's project. The board backed the project during public hearings to rezone the property from industrial to commercial.
The soccer club, which has 2,000 youth players, pays for space at Sahlen's and at school gymnasiums. It expects to save 50 percent in rent at the new facility, said Tom Ryan, president of the soccer club. Training and performance will also be enhanced on turf as opposed to playing on a gym floor, he said.
"If this could come to fruition, it would be a tremendous asset to the community," Ryan said. "It would be awesome."
The facility will be in the former Sweeney Specialty Metals, a sprawling 220,000-square-foot warehouse being converted in three phases. Currently, M/ile Sports is leasing about 40 percent of the building for two 220-by-70-foot turf fields that will be ready for a soft opening in October, Damico said. A restaurant and orthopedic and fitness centers are planned for January. And by next summer, he hopes to have the entire building in use with two more indoor fields and an all-purpose 300-by-300-foot outdoor turf field.
"When we started in 2000, we had six football teams. Who would have thought we'd be opening a multimillion-dollar facility," Damico said.
The Media/Industries League of Excellence formed when Damico worked with 103.3 Edge Radio and organized charity softball and football games for the station.
"People enjoyed it so much, I decided to start a league," he said.
The leagues were originally open to media professionals, but in 2000 it welcomed everyone. M/ile took off quickly as co-ed and single-sex teams paid $300 each to participate. But wintertime participation fizzled as the M/ile became nomadic, playing in the gyms of different area colleges and other locations with inappropriate flooring and ceilings too low for the league's various sports.
As of now, the two sets of restroom/locker rooms are near completion, but Waterfront Sports and Entertainment Center is largely an empty shell. But by October, "I see much activity going on," Damico said. "Kids and adults, running around, playing different sports."