By Nick Shook
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In its early days, journeying through the Pro Football Hall of Fame was more like taking a stroll.
Enter through the front doors of the circular main building, walk up the rotunda ramp around a statue of Jim Thorpe, view a collection of football artifacts, walk through a few more modest rooms filled with busts and exhibits, and that was pretty much it.
These days, a fan needs almost an entire day to get through the meat and potatoes of the Hall’s exhibits. Soon enough, it’ll be a week.
Professional football’s most hallowed ground has long stood as a monument to the game in the city where it started, but it didn’t offer much more. Under the direction of president David Baker, it’s slowly transforming into football’s Disneyland.
As one takes George Halas Drive toward the Hall of Fame, a two-tiered grandstand with a brand new press box atop it rises from behind the Hall’s original circular building, built in 1963. The suburban neighborhood that once surrounded the quaint Hall of Fame and Fawcett Stadium has been replaced by empty dirt lots dotted with a fleet of construction equipment, in use at all hours of the day and night. Workers toil around the clock on a complete rebuild of the stadium, since renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, after the Saints‘ owner, who donated $11 million toward the project. And that is just the beginning of the endeavor.
Baker glows with pride as renderings of major expansion plans flash on flat-screen TVs in the Hall’s glass-walled guest welcome center. The Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village is grand and ambitious, in that it will be the first football mecca to serve as a place to both preserve the past and develop the future.
What began as plans for a hotel, retirement and independent/assisted living community and player-care center for football legends is now a $700 million project. The HKS-designed complex will include: the new, 23,000-seat stadium, a four-star hotel and conference center, the aforementioned retirement and independent/assisted living community and player-care center, retail space for shops and restaurants, a Hall of Fame experience facility, a convention center, a 6,000-seat multipurpose arena and performance center that will serve as the home of the NBA Gatorade League’s Canton Charge, a development and training facility, an institute for coaching, officiating and corporate excellence, and eight full-size football fields fit for hosting tournaments, clinics and camps. The entire expansion is set to be complete in 2020.
The stadium will also host the NCAA Division III football championship in 2020 and 2021 and the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s annual football state championships, and it will serve as the host site in the league’s contingency plan for unforeseen circumstances (i.e., a major venue issue, or the threat of a hurricane) during the season. With its performance center, the Hall could also host West Coast teams between two-game eastern stretches, much like The Greenbrier has done for clubs in West Virginia.
The Hall is also developing an archive capable of housing video and image files for every player who has played a down in the NFL, making the message clear: Any and everyone associated with the game is welcome in Canton.
Baker waxes poetic about the potential of the complex, and the custom experience it will offer its visitors. Fan of the Seahawks? Stay in the complex’s hotel, and your room will display custom images of the team’s greats. The same goes for all other NFL teams.
Fans might recall Nike’s advertising campaign surrounding former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, which included a commercial depicting the “Michael Vick Experience.” In the spot, a fan sat in a roller coaster seat while wearing an Atlanta Falcons helmet, and the ride took him through a virtual field full of defenders, all of which he evaded to score in the wildest of fashions, just like Vick in his heyday. Thanks to technological advances over the last decade, Baker says the Hall’s NFL experience will provide something similar for fans.
There’s also a sports bar — named “The World’s Greatest Sports Bar” — that will include both public and private interactive experiences for patrons, such as a simulated wall of video boards showing a crowd rising and falling with the action of the game on the bar’s screen. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula’s “Shula’s 347” restaurant will be in the complex, as well. Companies can also host conferences at the village’s new conference center and create their own hall of fame, complete with their own induction ceremony.
Oh, and a football-themed waterpark is in the works, too.
Baker doesn’t just read these attractions off a list. He’s like parent on Christmas morning, sitting on the edge of the sofa, barely able to contain his excitement as his child unwraps the biggest gift under the tree. Most of all, he can’t wait to bring it to the cradle of professional football.
Canton, situated 15 minutes south of Akron and an hour south of Cleveland, owns many characteristics of other metropolises in the region, all of which have seen their best days as industrial centers come and go. Sure, 2016’s NBA title for the Cleveland Cavaliers provided a boost to the region, but that success is as fleeting as it is memorable. When Baker arrived in Canton in 2014, the city was facing the serious possibility of losing the Hall of Fame altogether. The blame centered on the region’s shortcomings. The Canton area supposedly couldn’t support a major hotel. Fawcett Stadium was incredibly outdated. The surrounding attractions were few and far between. The Hall of Fame was essentially a small museum situated along an interstate and next to a high school stadium.
“I always thought of the Hall of Fame as the induction ceremony, and people going in there the one time in the summer, and never really thought of it beyond that,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft says.
The topic loomed over Stark County like a storm cloud that is ignored until it’s too late. Baker came from across the country to take the reins of the Hall, which required a feeling-out process with the rest of the community. He sparked a grassroots effort, appearing at every luncheon and community event he could to get familiar with both the folks in power and the average Cantonian, because as Baker’s wife, Colleen, proudly declares, “They don’t say, ‘You’re going to the Hall of Fame.’ They say, ‘You’re going to Canton.’ ”
Thanks to these many meetings, the locals started to let their guard down. During this introductory period, Baker’s grand vision began to materialize.
The plan is expansive, draws upon Baker’s experiences as mayor of the city of Irvine, California, and his lead in the development of an integrated health care village in Henderson, Nevada, and his study of Disneyland’s growth. Colleen says Canton-area residents were naturally skeptical at first. But as they saw Fawcett Stadium become Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, their opinions started to shift. Excitement is building. The local newspaper, the Canton Repository, ran a 51-page pullout spread focused solely on the project, with the headline, “Putting Ohio on the map.”
“This is a project that will redefine our community,” says Dennis P. Saunier, president and CEO of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village gives us hope. It gives Canton a rally. It gives us a collective vision of something to be proud of.”
After the Hall of Fame‘s lowest point in recent memory, when Baker was forced to cancel the annual Hall of Fame Gamein 2016 due to a groundskeeping mistake that left the field unsafe for play, the Hall rebounded with force, securing naming rights in an 18-year partnership with Johnson Controls worth well over $100 million. The new field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium won’t have any paint, either. All of the graphics are sewn into the artificial turf.
Seated in his office alongside Colleen and Pete Fierle, the Hall’s chief of staff and vice president of communications, Baker looks out his office window at the stadium on a Saturday afternoon in July and proudly proclaims over the phone, “We’re putting in the gold seats today.” Enshrinement Weekend is creeping up on the calendar, and construction workers are working relentlessly. Baker is working overtime, too.
Those gold seats serve as the jewel atop the crown that is Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. The construction workers installing the seats, in their orange vests and hard hats, represent a family of four being fed by a wage earned on the job, said Baker. The laborers take pride in it, too.
“The vice president of operations for the construction company, he actually went around — a lot of these guys have been on the project for a year or more — and he offered them a break. … Everyone said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Fierle says.
This detail makes Baker smile with pride. He understands the project is about more than the Pro Football Hall of Fame — it’s about an economic infusion for Northeast Ohio.
That infusion is a generation of $15.3 billion in cumulative net new total economic output within Stark County, and the creation of more than 13,000 new jobs during the project’s peak year, according to an independent economic feasibility study completed in May 2015. The development has also attracted companies located outside of the region, which have indicated their interest in relocating to or expanding in the area “because of what the village represents,” Saunier says.
“As the project continues to evolve and develop, you see communities here in Stark County and in Northeast Ohio come a little bit closer together,” Saunier says. “This is not only a Canton project, this is a project that will affect the economy of our county, our region of Northeast Ohio, and the state.”
One would be remiss to overlook the potential boost in morale, too, which the region could sorely use.
“I think there’s an opportunity to make a bigger difference here,” Baker says. “We get an opportunity to change some hearts and transform some people, and support some people. And that’s a pretty good place to be.
“It’s not just this museum for football. It’s really about this message of excellence.”
That message is catching the eye of those unfamiliar with Canton, but eager to hop on a plane to learn more. The Hall anticipates Mark and Jeff Bezos’ — yes, that Jeff Bezos, recently named the world’s richest person — presence at Enshrinement Weekend festivities. Higher-ups from Disney and Dell have stopped by the Hall to exchange ideas. The drive for excellence also includes luring the NFL draft, which the Hall and the city of Cleveland have jointly applied to host in 2019 and 2020, with Warren Buffett giving his endorsement, according to Baker. It’s part of a plan to make Canton the center of the celebration of the league’s centennial in 2020. Baker has a countdown clock ticking down toward it in his office.
“There’s a draft every year; there’s a Super Bowlevery year. But there’s only a centennial every other lifetime,” Baker says. “I think that is a real opportunity where, for this region, that will be Northeast Ohio’s Super Bowl. And I think it will be bigger than the Super Bowl.”
On future Hall of Fame weekends, neighboring residents won’t be sitting in their front yards in lawn chairs, holding up signs that read “PARKING: $20.” Instead, glimmering, state-of-the-art buildings will stand in their place. Perhaps fans will be making a similar pilgrimage to what Baker calls “the Church of Football” in the spring for the draft.
A member of the Hall’s Class of 2017 takes the religious metaphor a step further.
“Canton, the Hall of Fame Village as it’s evolving into, is the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. “We all understand that that’s a tangible, real focal point of something that is so much more impressive, and that’s the Catholic religion. … I see that being used in addition to what they can do, and that’s expand to all of our fans and all of our people involved in NFL football, the importance of the game.”
When Baker accepted the position to helm the Hall in 2014, he and Colleen saw the institution as a diamond in the rough that needed plenty of attention. As construction barrels toward 2020, it’s clear they’ve provided that necessary effort.
“We’re polishing that stone,” Colleen Baker says, “and it’s going to be spectacular.”
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.