CANTON, Ohio – The National Football League is one of the biggest brands in the country, with legions of fans who spend a lot of time and money on it.
Yet visitors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, tend to stay for just a few hours.
The Hall of Fame Village that is currently taking shape around the football shrine aims to change that.
The Village is a 100-acre campus that, when complete, will include an indoor water park and hotel, an amphitheater, a promenade of shops and restaurants and a sports betting parlor. These will accompany an indoor sports and entertainment center, a zipline and Ferris wheel, a stadium and the youth sports complex, which are already open.
Each of these elements is part of phase two, except the stadium, which was phase one. Construction should be complete by the end of this year.
The $600 million project will employ 5,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers when complete.
The pull of the Hall of Fame is strong on football fans across the country. The trick is to get them to stay, and Anne Graffice, public relations chief of Hall of Fame Village Resort and Entertainment Co., believes that will happen.
“As we open our attractions up, we are listening and responding to what our fans say they like and don’t like, and then we react to that in our future plans,” she says. “We’re giving our guests what they are asking for.”
The landscaped campus on Canton’s west side is being built on land formerly occupied by houses and other structures.
A massive manmade stone waterfall greets guests as they drive through the main entrance.
While the Hall of Fame Village Resort and Entertainment Co. is not affiliated with the nonprofit Pro Football Hall of Fame, it works in lockstep with it, Graffice says.
The project is still largely flying under the radar, at least in the Youngstown area. Folks in the Mahoning Valley and beyond might be stunned to see the scope and quality of the project that is taking shape.
But that is likely to change in the coming months as a marketing push is launched.
The Village project was first announced in 2015, with a 2018 completion date. As the project grew, it was beset by administrative and financing delays. Then the pandemic and the ensuing supply chain difficulties further slowed construction, Graffice says.
The project got firmly on track in 2018, when former Disney executive Michael Crawford took over as CEO. Construction is now proceeding on pace.
“Prior to him, it was riddled with overpromises and under-delivery,” Graffice says. “Our commitment now is to do what we say we’re going to do, and make sure we have the financing in line [before making an announcement].”
Crawford is a 24-year veteran of the Disney Co., whose time there included a stint as senior vice president and general manager of Shanghai Disney Resort. He was at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for four years prior to joining the Hall of Fame Village.
One example of the company’s new strategy is the Performance Center, a 100,000-square-foot structure enclosed by a white inflatable dome. The project initially had a $40 million price tag, but when the price of steel skyrocketed, they had to redesign it.
“We took the cost down to $13 or $14 million, and it was finished two months sooner,” Graffice says. “It’s been the best decision. It fits in with the look and feel of our campus.”
The center is used for indoor football, soccer and basketball in the winter, and also for performances and exhibitions.
In an interview with Cleveland television station WKYC in November, Crawford pointed to the Village’s positive effect on the city of Canton.
“If you look at four or five years from now, you’re talking about several hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact on a community that really needs that,” Crawford said.
THE RIGHT PLACE
The park initially was popularly viewed as “a football Disneyland,” and the manicured campus does have a resort atmosphere.
Being in Ohio makes it a tougher sell in the winter, but the water park, with its 150,000 square feet of wet space and attached hotel, will be a draw all year.
The weather notwithstanding, Graffice says the Canton location has many strengths, even when compared with Florida. Proximity to fans is one of them.
“There is nothing in our region like this,” she says. “East of the Mississippi River is where more than half of the NFL teams are located, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.”
Statistics show that 90% of Americans who say their favorite sport is football have never been in an NFL stadium. Graffice says the reasons are usually the cost or the distance.
“We offer them an opportunity to experience football in an affordable space and within driving distance of millions and millions of folks,” she says. “We are creating something that we know there is a demand for. There are many things to do in Florida, and nothing at all like this in our space.”
While the average length of stay at Disney World is 2 ½ to three days, the average visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is just a few hours.
“We’d like to see folks extend it to multiple days, and we’ve already seen that start to happen,” Graffice says. “We have people coming in for tournaments [at the youth sports complex] and stay for a couple of days. We will soon be able to offer them a chance to stay in our hotels and go to our water park.”
Here is a closer look at what exists so far:
• The Center for Performance is a 100,000-square-foot structure used for entertainment, exhibitions and indoor sports.
• The Foreverlawn Sports Complex features eight synthetic multipurpose youth sports fields with lighting, concessions, a coaches’ tower and a medical facility.
• Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium is a state of the art 20,000-seat football stadium with luxury suites. The rebuilt facility, formerly known as Fawcett Stadium, is home to two USFL teams (the Pittsburgh Maulers and New Jersey Generals), the USFL playoffs and NFL Hall of Fame events.
• Constellation Center for Excellence, located in the west end zone of Benson Stadium, is a 75,000-square-foot research, retail and office building.
• Fan Engagement Zone features a promenade of retail shops, restaurants and other public spaces for guests. Already open is Don Shula’s American Kitchen, Build a Bear, Heggy’s Nut Shop. In progress are a Top Golf Swing Suite location, Brew Kettle, Starbuck’s, a Canton visitors bureau outlet, The Oven pizza and an ice cream and cookie shop. More attractions will be added to it. It will be partially complete later this year.
• Play Action Plaza is a 3.5-acre greenspace with a Ferris wheel at one end and a zipline launch pad at the other. The Ferris wheel, which was moved to the Village from the former I-X Center in Cleveland, became operational this month.
• Hilton Tapestry Hotel will be a seven-story, 154,000-square-foot premium hotel with 180 guest rooms and 2,100 square feet of meeting rooms, an indoor pool and restaurant. Ground will be broken in a few weeks.
• A football-themed, indoor water park will feature a waterslide tower, lazy river, wave pool, swim-up bar and outdoor entertainment area. It is currently under construction.
The Village already owns and operates a DoubleTree hotel in downtown Canton. Formerly known as the McKinley Grand Hotel, it is just a few minutes away.
The third phase of construction will include an outdoor amphitheater and more shopping and dining options, Graffice says, noting the plans are still being drawn up.
Another big draw will be a sports betting parlor. The state last year approved the Village’s application for a brick-and-mortar sports betting book with bar and restaurant, although construction has not yet started.
The Village also was approved to launch a sports betting app.
Graffice says the Hall of Fame Village is at the forefront of “stay and play” resorts that will use professional sports as the main draw.
“We are not the NFL, but we are aligned with them – one of the biggest brands in the world,” she says.
The Village, she predicts, will become known nationwide in short order as marketing efforts ramp up.
“This whole region will be exposed nationally like you’ve never seen before in the next year or so,” Graffice says. “They say you’re not relevant until you’re relevant, but we are becoming increasingly relevant.”
Part of its marketing push will focus on northeastern Ohio. The Village has already met with tourism officials in Akron and Cleveland and plans to reach out to the Youngstown area next.
“We want to partner with other folks in our region, and that includes Youngstown,” Graffice says. “Maybe [our guests] will see what is here and then look for what is in other cities to visit. All ships will rise.”
Beth Carmichael, executive director of the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, can see the potential.
“It’s a huge opportunity for all of northeastern Ohio to drive more visitors to our area,” she says. “We’re excited to continue to see investment in travel experiences in our area.”
Pictured at top: The Pro Football Hall of Fame is at the center of Hall of Fame Village.