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 NFL has the opportunity to take this incredibly popular game that people can’t get enough of … and there’s a real commitment now to share the values of the game that could have a tremendous social impact,” Baker said. “The NFL, because of the popularity of the sport and the values they want to spread, wants to make a difference. Those are things Walt Disney didn’t have.”

While the expansion of hotel rooms in the county is not directly related to Hall of Fame Village, there are eight new hotels that have opened or will be opening in 2015. That is an additional 803 rooms, on which a 3 percent lodging tax is levied by Stark County, almost all of it going to the Stark County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. However, that bed tax is collected only when a room is paid for. By the end of this year, there will be an additional 293,095 room nights to fill on just the new hotel rooms.

And while bed-tax collections have grown every year since 2010, they have grown at a much slower pace. In 2011, bed-tax collections were up 21 percent from the previous year. In 2013, they were up just 3.6 percent, and in 2014, they rose 4.6 percent.

A Hall of Fame Village, connected to a center city with an entertainment, restaurant and shopping attraction, not to mention Amish country a short drive away, could entice more people to stay overnight. That leads to more money spent here. Overnight visitors, on average, spend about twice as much as day visitors.

The first industry to see an uptick in jobs will be construction, and in some ways, it already has. Fred Olivieri Construction has worked closely with the Hall of Fame.

Olivieri Construction played a key role in the last expansion. Michael Lombardi, vice president for commercial construction at Olivieri, has met with Hall of Fame leaders to discuss plans, but nothing is firm.

He did not diminish the idea of seeing a rise in construction jobs should the plan come to fruition. Lombardi has been doing this for 17 years, and this is the largest project he has seen come to Stark County.

“It’s early to say yet what all is happening and the time frame it happens,” Lombardi said. “As far as growth … yes, that opportunity is out there. There are going to be lots of opportunities coming up here. It’s not all going to come at once. It’s going to take time to develop a project of this magnitude.”

Nothing about Hall of Fame Village will happen soon. It took 50 years to grow the Hall of Fame to this point. But what if, for the first 50 years of its existence, Stark County used only a percentage of the economic engine the Hall is capable of driving?

“I believe for 51 years we’ve been building toward this,” Saunier said. “Everything has a time, and 10 years ago this wouldn’t have the impact it has now. I’ve worked with individuals at the Hall of Fame from Pete Elliott, to John Bankert to Stephen Perry who built the foundation to allow us to do this.”

What exactly “this” is and what it becomes isn’t defined yet. What Stark County has, like Nashville has with music and Anaheim has with Disneyland, is a concept to build a destination.

Lichter is the private capital muscle behind the idea. He is the largest developer in Ohio and is the developer behind downtown Cleveland’s East Fourth Street area. He also has worked in Stark County, purchasing the old Hoover plant and developing it.

“If this develops as the project is presented, you’re going to see a 10- to 15-fold increase in the number of people coming to the area,” Lichter said. “You’re talking about exponentially improving the attractiveness of the complex. The area is going to become more of a resort area.”

Lichter’s involvement brings back a memory for Baker.

As a kid, he can remember his father giving him advice on timing. Lichter arrived in Baker’s office his third day on the job in Canton a little more than a year ago.

“There isn’t one thing that will make or not make this happen. It’s not the NFL writing a check because there are going to have to be more checks than that. We have an incredible team. … My dad was a guy who couldn’t read or write. He wasn’t educated, but he was intelligent. He told me once, ‘Son, everything in life comes down to money, love and timing, and if you have your choice, pick timing because it can get you the other two.’ ”

The same company that did a feasibility study for tourist hot spot Branson, Missouri, was retained for Hall of Fame Village’s feasibility study. Branson is a small town of about 10,000 people, but it attracts more than 7.5 million people a year. Coincidentally, Baker was booked for a speaking engagement there, where the city is building a $400 million convention center.

Canton’s feasibility study is being done on 3 million visitors a year, less than half of Branson’s.

“There are 7.5 million people going there to see shows. This is on the backs of Andy Williams, and not even Donny and Marie, but the other Osmond brothers,” Baker said. “What we’ve got is this metaphor for excellence, this hot product with incredible partners.”

Baker, who has been on the job for just more than a year, already puffs his chest with Stark County pride. His was a fresh set of eyes that came here and saw perhaps what we already believed, but were afraid to say. Stark County can be so much more, and the means to that end is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. None of this is any one person’s idea, and no one person, nor any one entity, will make this happen.

However, at 6-foot-9 and about 400 pounds, Baker is a big man with a big personality. His best days are when he realizes, yes, like him, everyone here is dreaming bigger.

Where to buy

The Repository
Select Rite Aid Stores
Spee-D Foods
Buehler's Fresh Foods
Fishers Foods, including 44th Street NW, Tuscarawas St. W, Fulton Drive, Lincoln Way E. and Cleveland Ave. NW locations
Aultman Hospital Gift Shop
Mercy Medical Center Gift Shop
Gervasi Vineyard Marketplace
Carpe Diem Coffee Shop, downtown Canton and Belden Village Mall locations
News Depot
Avenue Arts Marketplace
Yum Yum Tree Alliance
Grapes in a Glass