Hall of Fame City Dreaming Bigger

The window in the conference room next to Dennis Saunier’s downtown office is like a looking glass into the future of Canton.

The window in the conference room next to Dennis Saunier’s downtown office is like a looking glass into the future of Canton. The sun has lit up part of the property that takes up most of the northwest view of the window, and Saunier, whose voice is loudest and proudest when it comes to downtown development, does not let his mind stunt his imagination on what Market Square could be. When Saunier, president and CEO of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, looks at the green space that is Market Square, he sees the linchpin to the whole plan for the future. When Saunier looks through that window, he sees a vision of downtown Canton and possibly Stark County that interconnects with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Market Square could be a bridge to economic development not just in Canton, but Stark County.

About 2.5 miles away from Market Square is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and if the ambitious goals of Hall leaders and developers come to fruition, there will be the Hall of Fame Village campus in about five years. Connecting the pieces—Market Square to the crown jewel of Stark County—is relatively easy. There are three main routes to get from the heart of downtown to the Hall of Fame. Fulton Road is one of those, 12th and 13th streets are another, and a third is the parks system.

Developing one of those routes into a corridor that attracts visitors and leads them to Market Square, well, that’s the rub of the whole thing. That’s the hard part. In fact, there isn’t anything easy about bringing to life the idea of Hall of Fame Village, and, perhaps, reshaping Stark County for generations to come.

“This is our time for an opportunity that may not arrive again,” Saunier said, looking off as if to contemplate not only what that patch of land might look like in five years, but what it could mean for economic development of downtown. “The outcome will be an economic impact and a growth impact that, perhaps, we can’t imagine.”

Cover TemplateThis is the boldest and most important development project in Stark County since local leaders rallied and brought the Hall of Fame here. This may be bigger than the original plan to build the Hall of Fame. The Hall celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Where it goes in the next 50 years could be beyond imagination, and the direction being set now is perhaps exactly what our forefathers had in mind when they set about to make the Hall of Fame in Stark County a reality.

Hall of Fame Village is a vast concept with a final price tag that really has not been settled yet. None of the key players involved in making this a reality would blink an eye at more than $400 million for the completion of the Village and the renovation of Tom Benson Stadium. The fundraising has started. Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, already has donated $11 million to the project. The state of Ohio has added another $10 million. The city of Canton has contributed $5 million.

That’s the kind of buy-in commitment that gets the attention of an experienced private developer with capital, a guy such as Stuart Lichter, president and chairman of Industrial Realty Group. He has partnered with local leaders and has helped pay for some of the feasibility studies that are exploring just how big this can be, both in concept and for our future. Lichter never has taken on a project like this, developing an entertainment epicenter—a resort, really—to attract visitors and create jobs.

“When we make this happen, you can’t overestimate the impact it will have,” Lichter said. “The impact will be enormous.”

“It’s a game changer for the entire region,” said Anne Graffice, the Canton/Stark County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau chairwoman. “It goes well beyond our county’s boundaries. With a project of this potential magnitude, all ships rise. To say it’s exciting would be an understatement. I believe the vision can come to pass. If done correctly, with the right folks at the table, we have an opportunity to change this region and the state for our era and our children’s era.”