Canton, Ohio hopes $800 million “Disneyland of football” revitalizes long-suffering city

In Canton, Ohio, a makeover at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is turning an underdeveloped shrine to the heroes of America’s favorite sport into a $800 million mixed-use center of entertainment, residences, offices, research and health care.

This new project is a life-changer for this city,” said Fonda Williams, the deputy mayor and director of economic development.

Canton is 24 miles south of Akron, and 60 miles south of Cleveland. The city was founded in 1805 alongside the Nimishillen Creek. It became a heavy manufacturing center due to its numerous railroad lines.

As with many other “Rust Belt” cities, its heavy industry began to decline during the late 20th century, as shifts in the manufacturing industry led to an exodus of factories. After this decline, the city diversified into the service economy, including retailing, education, finance and healthcare.

Entrance to Hall of Fame in 2006.
Photo credit: Coemgenus via Wikipedia

Now comes the Hall of Fame project; the largest redevelopment in Canton’s history. The National Football League started in Canton in 1920 and has grown into a multi-billion-dollar sports league.

But the Pro Football Hall of Fame lurked at the edge of Canton’s civic attention for most of the 54 years since it was founded.

The museum, with its distinctive football-shaped rotunda, was hemmed in by Interstate 77 on one side and a neighborhood of middle-class homes on the other. The 118,000-square-foot museum has 200,000 to 300,000 visitors annually.

But other than the annual August induction ceremony and a nationally televised preseason game at an adjoining field, the Hall of Fame was often overlooked by the elected and civic leaders of this badly-faded city.

We’ve been a dying community for 20, 30 years,” said Mr. Williams, who was raised in the city. “If you look at how our population declined, we’ve been on a slow morphine drip, if you will. We had a great gem, the Hall of Fame, and we were not using it to brand the city in any way.

What about all those homes that will be displaced by the project? The Hall of Fame’s president and chief executive, David Baker, organized regular informational meetings and listening sessions with residents, and authorized payments for homes that were 30 percent to 40 percent above market value.

As a result of that better-than usual level of public engagement, it’s not surprising that the project has proceeded relatively smoothly, fo something of this magnitude.

There was no groundswell against the project,” said Scott Haws, the chairman of the Plain Township Board of Trustees. “People here understand what a big deal this is for our community. Values for property outside the village footprint are rising. In the grand scheme of things, it has gone relatively well.

We’re building an $800 million mixed use, kind of a Disneyland for football if you will, at Johnson Controls Hall of Fame village,” says Baker. “It’s going to be in preparation for the NFL’s 100th season that will begin in two years and then we’ll have the centennial celebration at the NFL on September 17th in 2020.

The ambitious project is in a new category of sports-focused, mixed-use developments that are appearing around the country.

Rendering courtesy of Pro Football Hall of Fame.

See full New York Times article by Keith Schneider.

See Pro Football Hall of Fame website.

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