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Sports promoter leads charge for downtown athletic complex

Michael Damico has dreamed for years of having a place in the city of Buffalo where adults could go for recreation, and to play some team sports.

Now, the sports promoter and league organizer is about to make that happen.

After nearly 20 years of coordinating football, soccer, softball and kickball games at various fields scattered through the city, Damico is leading an effort to create a new $2.3 million indoor and outdoor sports complex for adults near the Buffalo River.

The project at Elk and Orlando streets still needs approval from various city agencies, including the Common Council.

But if he's successful, he and the members of his leagues will have new fields on which to play year-round in the heart of the city. He'll even add volleyball to the repertoire of activities available for players.

"It's a lifelong dream for me," said Damico, a Hamburg High School computer technology teacher. "I want a facility as an adult playground. We'll still help the kids out, but this is mostly so adults have a place to go. This is going to be a great facility."

As an extra bonus, he's cemented a new relationship with Medaille College, which plans to call the new facility home for three of its sports. That not only guarantees revenues and usage but lends a higher degree of legitimacy to the effort.

"We're happy with that. It'll be a success," he said. "Now we don't have to worry every year."

Damico, the president of M/ilesports, is working on the venture with businessman Jon Williams' South Buffalo Development LLC. The goal is to add the new set of soccer fields to Williams' planned mixed-use complex at the former Schoellkopf manufacturing property, located next door at 229 Elk and 83 Lee St.

Specifically, it would be located on vacant land across the street from the former Schoellkopf Power House and Connector buildings that Williams is redeveloping into a combination of office, residential and industrial space. Williams owns Ontario Specialty Contracting, which will move its headquarters to the complex.

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The empty land was designated as the site for a 66-space parking lot, which will be moved to one side to accommodate the new sports complex. It also could be expanded in the future if the need arises, although "there's not going to be 1,000 people there at once," Damico said.

Plans call for constructing a single 26,400-square-foot fieldhouse, with an indoor athletic field measuring 70 yards by 30 yards, plus a larger outdoor field of 120 yards by 100 yards.

The fields – made with indoor-outdoor turf – will be configured to handle multiple sports, at different times, with special LED lighting outside for nighttime games during warmer weather. "We'll be playing softball every night," Damico said. Three volleyball courts also will be included as part of the complex.

The facility also will include an indoor cafe with a liquor license for beer and wine, "so you can hang around and watch other games," Damico said.

The complex will be managed by Damico's brother, Vinny, who retired last April after 45 years working at and managing La Nova Pizza on Ferry Street.

Founded in 1999 and based in Buffalo, M/ilesports sponsors adult leagues for football, soccer, softball and kickball, with both men's and co-ed teams. Games are currently held at Delaware Park and other city parks, as well as the Nardin Fieldhouse and the ADPRO Sports Training Center in Orchard Park.

But those fields are geographically spread out and not consistently available.

"In the city of Buffalo, youth groups get priority over everything," he said. "If there's an adult group, and a Little League softball team wants the field, they get it. So we're pretty much getting squeezed."

And the only other alternatives for adults are in the suburbs – Sahlens Sports Park on Seneca Street in Elma, Sportsplex in North Tonawanda or the Epic Sports Center on Wehrle Drive in Lancaster.

"I'm building this so my leagues have somewhere to go," he said. "People want to go downtown. A lot of young people live in the city. They don't want to be driving."

The fields will be used by M/ilesports' various leagues and teams much of the year, but they won't be the only users. Medaille, which currently leases fields elsewhere, has signed on for 1,000 hours of playing time over 10 years, for men's and women's soccer, lacrosse and field hockey – all of which start with practice in mid-August, after M/ilesports' softball and other leagues are finished. Damico said the college also wanted the fields set up for rugby, "but we have other partnerships we're looking at."

M/ilesports also signed a sponsorship and partnership agreement with Red Bull to run six events over the summer – two soccer tournaments, two volleyball tournaments, and one each for touch football and kickball. And Damico said he's been talking to other local schools as well.

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Additionally, while the focus is on adults, the indoor facility will be set aside from 3 to 6 p.m. every day for high school or youth groups.

Damico said he had previously looked at converting three different old industrial buildings into a fieldhouse, but the zoning restrictions and other factors made it too expensive. So after real estate broker Alan Hastings linked him with Williams, who was seeking a use for the vacant land, the latter suggested building from scratch instead.

The site is part of the larger 21.7-acre Buffalo Color property. Williams already received city approval last year for his larger $4.2 million project, under a "planned unit development" model that already covers the primary planned uses for the overall property. The Common Council will now consider his request to add "recreational" to the mix, to allow for Damico's plan, after the Council's Legislation Committee on Tuesday recommended approval.

Damico and Williams must still submit a formal site plan for review by the city Planning Board. If approved, Damico said they would start building the outdoor field in March, with an opening by May 1. At that point, workers will turn to constructing the fieldhouse, which must be turned over to Damico's company by Sept. 1, so it can install the turf, padding and cafe before opening by Oct. 1.

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