An Ohio mill has lost its identity.  Can youth sports restore it?

Nov 03, 2020 Travel News

An Ohio mill has lost its identity. Can youth sports restore it?

HAMILTON, Ohio – Hamilton has long been a city in search of identity.

In its heyday, its industries produced paper and housed a company that manufactured safes capable of withstanding a nuclear explosion. But as the demand for paper and bomb-proof safes declined, these industries took Hamilton with them. What was left of this city of 70,000 people along the Great Miami River was then destroyed by the Great Recession ten years ago.

Over the years, rulers have attempted to reinvent the city, sometimes in a way that brought more ludicrous than redemption.

Hamilton gained notoriety in the 1980s when the city officially added an exclamation mark after its name (an addition quickly rejected by cartographer Rand McNally). Later, the city called itself the City of Sculpture, and it still has a much-loved sculpture collection and award-winning sculpture park. Still, the artistic nickname couldn’t pierce the image of the city’s rust belt.

The city’s manufacturing ghosts continued to haunt her in the form of abandoned factories and smokestacks pointing like frozen fingers in the sky. Now one of those closed factories is about to be reused, and residents doubt even the pandemic could derail Hamilton’s transformation, this time into a sports town.

City manager Joshua A. Smith arrived in 2010 from Howard, Wisconsin, a suburb of Green Bay, another struggling Rust Belt town.

“The community was lacking any kind of energy,” said Mr. Smith, now 47. “It was almost as if the city had abandoned itself.”

Perhaps no facility exemplifies the city’s fortunes better than the empty Champion Paper factory, which closed in 2012. Some potential buyers have started bidding (an out-of-town company wanted to buy it for cold storage), but Mr. Smith saw the promise and the city bought the Champion complex along with its 40 acres of waterfront land for $ 400,000.

The 1.3 million square foot site is on its way to becoming what is billed as the largest indoor sports complex in North America: the Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill.

Spooky Nook is an indoor sports company based in Manheim, Pa., Where its 700,000 square foot resort attracts more than one million visitors annually, bringing in more than $ 50 million to the local economy, according to Tourism Economics. , an analysis firm trip.

Hamilton, through tax breaks and infrastructure improvements, has provided $ 20 million in funding for the $ 170 million Champion Mill complex in the hopes that it will receive the same draw when it opens. by the end of 2021. To achieve this, development will go beyond sports to include a fitness center, restaurants, residences and shops. The city estimates that it will create 380 permanent jobs.

Switching to sports is a natural fit, said Mayor Pat Moeller, who added that he envisions legions of tourists visiting Hamilton’s restaurants, bars and shops.

“It will transform us,” he said.

Across the country, youth sports have become big business, and cities often covet the facilities as a way to boost local development and attract residents from the outside.

The industry generates $ 19 billion in revenue nationwide, up from around $ 9 billion several years ago, said Norm Gill, managing partner of Pinnacle Indoor Sports, an advisory service that helped build 50 complexes across the country but is not involved in the Spooky Nook Project. .

“Sport tourism is on steroids,” said Gill, who estimated that each visitor could spend $ 110 to $ 180 per day on food, accommodation and tickets.

More than $ 550 million has been spent to develop complexes to accommodate youth sports in the past three years, according to Sports Business Journal, a trade publication. And there are 1,250 indoor soccer facilities across the country, according to the US Indoor Sports Association, a commercial organization. They can range from under 25,000 square feet to the size of Champion Mill, but only the larger ones attract major tournaments.

The SportsPlex in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for example, opened in May with great fanfare among residents. By providing six regulation basketball courts, two indoor soccer fields, 12 volleyball courts and other equipment, organizers hope to attract sports and tournament activities to a five-state region.

“These sports complexes are a symptom or the result of the professionalization of sports for young people that has taken place over the past 40 years,” said Victor A. Matheson, professor of sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass Elite traveling teams, increasingly expensive equipment and more rigorous training schedules are part of the experience of today’s players.

The pandemic has put the brakes on many industries, and youth sport is no different, but Gill believes by the time the Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill opens, the demand will be there. The industry is most likely oversaturated and headed for reduction, he said, but the mixed-use component of the Hamilton plant could give it some durability.

Industry experts agree that the key is to attract travelers who will circulate their dollars in the host city. Without this element, success can be fleeting.

Large youth sports complexes are typically 30,000 to 100,000 square feet, and many are privately run. Those owned by municipalities, like the SportsPlex in Cape Girardeau, are often built as a catalyst for development.

“These facilities cause losses – cities don’t make money with them,” said Gill. “The real goal is to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.”

Spooky Nook Sports predicts one million visitors to Hamilton in its first year, a milestone its Manheim, near Lancaster, Pa. Facility did not reach until its third year.

But the challenge for Hamilton and other cities is the limited number of kids and parents willing to spend many weekends of the year competing in these tournaments.

“You have to have gigantic tournaments to justify this size,” said Professor Matheson. “A city of 70,000 people cannot generate activity to conserve 700,000 square feet of indoor sports space. You can pull baskets down your driveway for free. “

To that end, Hamilton is attempting to attract a critical mass of recreation seekers to complement Spooky Nook. The Pinball Garage recently opened nearby, with over 30 gaming machines, and Mr Smith, the city manager, has stipulated that Spooky Nook is occupying the space for restaurants and other amenities with local operators.

Spooky Nook founder Sam Beiler isn’t concerned about the saturation of the market. Thirty-five weekends in 2022 are already set aside for youth sports tournaments at Champion Mill.

“We think our model, which focuses on local traffic and corporate events throughout the week and youth sports tournaments on the weekends, is a great model,” he said. in an email.

Local businesses are also hanging their fortunes on Spooky Nook. Hamilton straddles the Great Miami River, and until a few years ago the west side was pockmarked with empty storefronts. But once rumors of the arrival of Spooky Nook started to circulate, boutiques, art stores, and restaurants began to take hold.

Mike Hoskins, owner of Petals & Wicks, a flower and candle shop, said one of the things that drew him and his wife to their current location four years ago was the expectation of an increase in traffic from the sports complex. They struggled during the pandemic lockdown, but regained a foothold and are banking on Spooky Nook changing the city, he said.

The same goes for Paula Hollstegge, co-owner of Hip Boutique, where shelves are full of colorful clothing and accessories, less than a mile from the sports complex.

“We’re super excited about Spooky Nook,” Ms. Hollstegge said. “We hope that after a day of sports women will want to leave the guys behind and go shopping.”

The city’s fortunes may well depend on it.