Sports-themed village finally taking shape around Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, but financing challenges remain

Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio is taking shape, but financing remains a challenge.

Published by: Susan Glaser/
Published date: August 2022

CANTON, Ohio – After eight years of debate and delays, the area surrounding the Pro Football Hall of Fame is starting to take shape, a sports-themed entertainment zone that developers hope will make Canton a multi-day destination.

Right now, however, it’s a massive construction zone, as workers hurry to ready the site for Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement festivities, which start Thursday.

On one side of the property, the new football-themed zipline – dubbed the Forward Pass – is being tested. On another, workers are finalizing construction of the new Center for Performance, a 100,000-square-foot domed space where many enshrinement events will be held. At the entrance, workers are building a new waterfall feature to greet guests.

It’s been a long time coming for the project’s backers, who have had to counter years of skepticism about when – even if – the project would happen.

“Seeing is believing,” said Anne Graffice, executive vice president, public affairs for the Hall of Fame Village. “A lot of folks didn’t believe that something like this could happen here.”

Despite significant progress, however, major financial questions remain over the Hall of Fame Village, which is a separate, for-profit enterprise from the nonprofit Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened in Canton in 1963.

Initially projected to be completed in 2018, and then 2020, village leaders now say all major components, including a new 180-room hotel and indoor waterpark, will be done by late 2023 or early 2024.

But that assumes financing comes together, said David Sangree, president of Cleveland-based hospitality consulting firm Hotel & Leisure Advisors.

“The plans are very exciting, but the money issue is incredibly hard,” he said. “There are a lot of these projects that don’t get to the finish line because they can’t come up with the money. Nothing is definite until you get the money released.”

Graffice acknowledged that financing has been exceedingly difficult, in part because of the project’s scope, but also due to the downturn in the hospitality industry, supply chain issues, inflation and other factors.

“Pushing that ball uphill hasn’t gotten any easier,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to overcome it.”

The village is involved in a legal dispute with Johnson Controls, one of the project’s early backers, which wants out of a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal. In addition, the village was recently warned by Nasdaq that its shares have been trading too low — under $1 a share in recent months – and could be delisted if prices don’t increase.

The financial outlook should improve in the coming months, however, as additional attractions open and the complex starts to generate more revenue, Graffice said.

And newly legalized sports betting in the state is expected to generate a substantial and steady source of revenue for the Hall of Fame Village, as soon as early 2023.

Project first proposed in 2014

It was back in 2014 when David Baker, then the CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, first floated the idea of an elaborate, $1 billion development around the hall, creating what he called the “Disneyland of football” in Canton.

The concept has been pared down considerably since then, and delayed by financing issues, COVID-19 and other challenges.

Still, finally, eight years later, the complex is coming together.

Many of the attractions that officials had hoped would be ready for this year’s enshrinement events – when the eyes of football fans everywhere will be focused on Canton – won’t be complete until later this year. That includes most of the components of the Fan Engagement Zone, with restaurants, retail and other entertainment offerings.

And the Ferris wheel – which is being relocated from Cleveland’s I-X Center and renamed the Red Zone – needs to be refurbished and won’t be ready until later this year or early 2023, according to Graffice.

Despite the delayed timeline, Canton resident Stephanie Impagliozza, who lives across the street from the construction, said she’s excited about the progress.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you wake up and see two guys ziplining past you,” she said, the day after she saw workers testing the zipline not far from the home her family has owned for 50 years.

She said she and her neighbors are pleased that the project is finally happening. “They bought houses and then nothing happened,” said Impagliozza, recalling a pause in construction in 2018 after financing fell through. “It sat for 18 months. That’s when people got a little panicky.”

But she can see the progress with her own eyes now. “I just wish they would take down the black skirting on the fence so we had a better view of what they’re doing,” she said.

Here’s what has been done and what’s still to come:

* The Constellation Center for Excellence, an office building at the north end of the stadium, built to house sports- and health-related businesses, was finished last year, although much of the space is still vacant. Graffice said several tenant announcements are expected soon.

* The 100,000-square-foot Center for Performance, to the west of the stadium, is nearly complete, and will be used for numerous enshrinement events this year. It will also be used for other athletic events, concerts, and major consumer events like auto shows and home and garden shows. To cut costs, the village converted what was originally conceived as a brick and mortar facility to a soft-sided, domed-top building, saving as much as $25 million, according to Graffice.

* The Play Action Plaza area is partially complete, with the Forward Pass zipline set to offer rides in the coming days, a walking path, amphitheater and more. The Ferris wheel will eventually be part of this area, as well.

* The area called the Fan Engagement Zone, still under construction, won’t be ready for enshrinement, but will open in phases this fall, according to Graffice. This area includes a Don Shula’s restaurant, Topgolf Swing Suites, Brew Kettle and other sports-themed restaurants and retailers. It’s unclear, however, if the development includes a previously announced 7,000-square-foot Helix eSports entertainment center. The arena has not been included in recent village promotional material, and Graffice declined to comment on the status of the venue. A spokesperson for Esports Entertainment Group did not respond to an email seeking information.

Also coming soon: a new 180-room Hilton Tapestry hotel and adjoining 147,000-square-foot, football-themed, indoor waterpark, with construction expected to get started in late summer.

Meanwhile, several earlier aspects of the development are fully operational, including a renovated Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, which is hosting more events, including Journey and comedian Dave Chappelle next weekend, the O’Jay’s with Gladys Knight and the Black College Hall of Fame Game in September, plus USFL games, high school football championships and more.

In addition, eight youth athletic fields continue to draw tens of thousands of young athletes to town annually, along with their parents.

And business is picking up at the recently renovated McKinley Grand Hotel in downtown Canton, which the village purchased in 2019.

During an earnings call in May, Hall of Fame Village CEO Michael Crawford said he believes the total package of attractions will be a significant regional draw

“We’re going to have unique experiences that people won’t have the opportunity in their daily lives to experience without traveling to Florida or, the West Coast to see Disney or Universal,” said Crawford, a former long-time Disney executive who was tapped in late 2018 to see the Canton project through to completion.

Financial challenges

Total cost of the first two phases – including the stadium, youth fields, Center for Excellence, Center for Performance, the Fan Engagement Zone, Play Action Plaza, hotels and waterpark — is $600 million.

In an interview in 2021, Graffice said that the project would include at least $60 million in public money. More recently, she acknowledged that the public-dollar figure had increased, although she declined to say by how much.

Canton City Council recently approved a $5 million loan for the village, which also received $33.4 million in public-private financing from a program that promotes clean-energy investment. The village is also seeking $5 million from Stark County and is vying for $16 million from the Ohio Department of Development’s Transformational Mixed-Use Development Program.

The NFL’s contribution to the project has been minimal. The league pledged $10 million to the village in 2019, although Graffice said the payment has yet to be made.

Meanwhile, the village last month secured a $10.5 million loan from CH Capital Lending, a company tied to Stuart Lichter, president of Industrial Realty Group and a director on the Hall of Fame Resort board. Lichter and his affiliated companies make up the Hall of Fame Village’s largest shareholders, holding more than half of the company’s stock.

Graffice described the CH Capital loan, which expires in mid-September and carries a 12% interest rate, as a bridge loan that allowed construction to continue. “Priority one is to make sure we do not stop construction,” said Graffice.

Meanwhile, one of the project’s chief sponsors, Johnson Controls, is trying to back out of a naming-rights agreement with the village, which is worth $99 million through 2034. The dispute is in arbitration.

The Nasdaq, too, in May put the village on notice – get your stock price above $1 per share or face the possibility of being delisted. The company share price has improved in recent weeks, closing on Friday at $0.86 per share.

In better financial news, the village is poised to receive one of up to 48 licenses for casino-style sports-betting in Ohio, recently legalized by state lawmakers. The Hall of Fame Village is the only applicant for the single license permitted in Stark County, under an allocation system based on population.

The village, which lobbied heavily for the legalization of sports gambling, could see revenue from betting as soon as early 2023.

A recent analyst report from the Maxim Group, a New York City-based investment bank, lists the village as a good investment, noting the promise of sports betting and ongoing construction progress. “We remain bullish for the longer term,” reads the report. “Near-term externalities (mainly COVID and supply chain issues) have, in our view, delayed the full impact of the [Hall of Fame Village] story with investors…”

Graffice, too, is confident the project will continue to move forward. For proof, she only needs to look outside her office, located inside the Center of Excellence, with a bird’s-eye view of construction in every direction.

“There was great skepticism,” she said. “It’s a different conversation now that people can see it.”