HAMILTON, Ohio – Hamilton has long been a city in search of identity.
During its heyday, industries produced paper and it was home to a company that made safes that could withstand a nuclear explosion. But when the demand for paper and bomb-proof safes declined, those industries took Hamilton with them. What was left of this 70,000-resident city on the Great Miami River was destroyed by the Great Recession a decade ago.
Over the years, leaders tried to reinvent the city, sometimes in ways that brought more ridicule than redemption.
Hamilton gained notoriety in the 1980s when the city officially added an exclamation mark after its name (an addition that was immediately rejected by card maker Rand McNally). Then the city christened itself City of Sculpture and still has a highly regarded collection of sculptures and an award-winning sculpture park. Even so, the artistic moniker failed to break the city's rust belt image.
The city's production spirits continued to haunt them in the form of abandoned factories and chimneys that pointed to the sky like frozen fingers. Now one of those closed factories is about to be converted, and locals doubt that even the pandemic can ruin Hamilton's transformation, this time into a city of sports.
City Administrator Joshua A. Smith came from Howard, Wisconsin, a bedroom suburb of Green Bay, another struggling town in the Rust Belt, in 2010.
"The community was lacking any kind of energy," said 47-year-old Smith. "It almost felt like the city had given up on itself."
Perhaps no institution illustrated the fate of the city more than the empty Champion Paper factory, which closed in 2012. Some potential buyers started circulating offers (a company out of town wanted to buy it for cold storage), but Mr. Smith saw promises and the town bought the Champion Complex along with its 40 acres of riverside land for $ 400,000 .
The 1.3 million square meter site is to become the largest indoor sports complex in North America: Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill.
Spooky Nook is an indoor sports company based in Manheim, Pennsylvania, where its 700,000-square-foot complex attracts more than a million visitors annually and raises more than $ 50 million for the local economy according to Tourism Economics, according to a research firm.
Hamilton has allocated $ 20 million to the $ 170 million Champion Mill complex through tax breaks and infrastructure upgrades, in the hope that it will receive the same draw when it opens in late 2021. To achieve this, development will go beyond sports, including a fitness center, restaurants, residences, and shops. The city estimates that 380 permanent jobs will be created.
Switching to sports is a given, Mayor Pat Moeller said, adding he envisioned legions of tourists visiting Hamilton's restaurants, bars and shops.
"It will transform us," he said.
Youth sports have become big business across the country, and cities often covet the facilities to fuel local development and attract out-of-towers.
The industry has sales of $ 19 billion nationwide, up from $ 9 billion a few years ago, said Norm Gill, managing partner of Pinnacle Indoor Sports, a consultancy that has helped build 50 complexes across the country but not is involved in the Spooky Nook project.
"Sports tourism is based on steroids," said Gill, who estimated that each visitor could spend $ 110 to $ 180 a day on food, accommodation, and tickets.
According to the Sports Business Journal, more than $ 550 million has been spent developing complexes for youth sports in the past three years. According to the U.S. Indoor Sports Association, a trading organization, there are 1,250 indoor soccer facilities nationwide. They can range from less than 25,000 square feet to the size of Champion Mill, but only the largest attract large tournaments.
The SportsPlex in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for example, opened to great fanfare among residents in May. With six regular basketball courts, two indoor soccer fields, 12 volleyball courts, and other facilities, the organizers hope to attract sports and tournament businesses from a five-state region.
"These sports complexes are a symptom or the result of the professionalization of youth sports over the past 40 years," said Victor A. Matheson, professor of sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Elite travel teams are increasingly expensive equipment and more stringent training schedules Part of the experience of today's gamers.
The pandemic has put a brake on many industries, and youth sports are no different, but Mr Gill believes the demand will be there by the time the Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill opens. The industry is most likely oversaturated and looking to cut back, he said, but the mixed-use component of Hamilton's facility could give it stamina.
Industry experts agree that the key is to attract travelers who start circulating their dollars in the host city. Without this component, success can be fleeting.
Large youth sports facilities are typically 30,000 to 100,000 square feet and many are privately owned. Communities like Cape Girardeau's SportsPlex are often built as a catalyst for development.
"These facilities are loss makers – cities don't make money from them," said Gill. "The real goal is to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the local economy."
Spooky Nook Sports forecasts one million visitors to Hamilton in the first year, a milestone that the Manheim, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania plant only reached in its third year.
The challenge for Hamilton and other cities, however, is the limited number of children and parents willing to spend many weekends of the year taking part in these tournaments.
"You have to have gigantic tournaments to justify this size," said Professor Matheson. "A city of 70,000 cannot generate business to occupy 700,000 square feet of indoor sports space. You can shoot baskets in your driveway for free."
To that end, Hamilton is trying to attract a critical mass of recreation seekers to complement Spooky Nook. The Pinball Garage recently opened nearby and has more than 30 slot machines. Mr. Smith, the city manager, has arranged for Spooky Nook to fill the restaurant and other facilities space with local operators.
Spooky Nook founder Sam Beiler isn't concerned about market saturation. 35 weekends in 2022 have already been booked for youth sports tournaments at Champion Mill.
"We believe our model, which focuses on local traffic and corporate events during the week as well as youth sports tournaments on the weekend, is a great model," he said in an email.
Local businesses also tie their assets to Spooky Nook. Hamilton spans the Great Miami River, and until a few years ago the west side was littered with empty shop windows. But as rumors of the arrival of Spooky Nook began to circulate, boutiques, art stores, and restaurants moved in.
Mike Hoskins, the owner of Petals & Wicks, a flower and candle shop, said one of the things that attracted him and his wife to their current location four years ago was the expectation of increased traffic from the sports complex. They fought during the pandemic lockdowns but have regained a foothold and are betting on Spooky Nook to change the city, he said.
One of them is Paula Hollstegge, co-owner of the hip boutique, where the shelves are full of colorful clothes and accessories less than a mile from the sports complex.
"We are excited about Spooky Nook," said Ms. Hollstegge. "We hope that after a day of sport the women will leave the boys behind and do some shopping."
The fate of the city may depend on it.