The first thing a delegation from Hamilton did Saturday — at 6:45 a.m. — in observing a busy weekend morning at Spooky Nook Sports, the nation’s largest indoor sports complex, was take an elevator to the roof of the three-story facility and watch vehicles drive in.
As Spooky Nook founder Sam Beiler had predicted the night before, the cars, SUVs and minivans at first arrived in a trickle, but within minutes became unbroken lines of headlights, arriving more than an hour early for the day’s first volleyball games at 8 a.m.
As soon as traffic backed up to a certain point on the roadway in, another large parking lot opened up, and vehicles were directed to another lot at the sports complex with many fields, courts and practice areas, a heaven for athletes and their families on the scale of a large shopping mall with activities for siblings, like rock-climbing spaces and video game areas.
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It was like a scene from the movie “Field of Dreams”: Beiler has built this gargantuan place around a former Armstrong flooring and ceiling-tile distribution center, and the people indeed have come.
“It will certainly be a catalyst to introducing the city of Hamilton to thousands upon thousands and thousands of people” who otherwise would not have visited, without the sports complex, Beiler said. “The cool part about Hamilton is that it is just prime, it’s just ready.”
Just as Manheim, Pa., has a number of independent restaurants and coffee shops, “That’s what I envision in Hamilton: You’re going to see more and more of that happening, because of the volume of people,” Beiler said.
Lisa Riggs, president of the nonprofit Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, is familiar with “the Nook” as a 3 1/2-year-old facility that brought more than a million athletes and families to her county last year, and also as the mother of two school-aged athletes.
“Typically this time of year, the place is bonkers on the weekend,” Riggs said. She hasn’t seen studies yet of the new facility’s economic impact, but as she walks in, she makes a point of checking license plates, and sees vehicles from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and other states.
“These are people that are probably coming in for the weekend, so one or two hotel nights, certainly some disposable spending for eating and other activities.”
“It is breathtakingly large,” she said of the place that provides clinics by professional athletes and is the home base of the U.S. women’s field hockey team.
Riggs has an 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter who play soccer and basketball. They are in leagues with teams that travel at least every other weekend from State College, Pa., more than two hours away.
“We already had a lot of athletic facilities. It’s not that there was a huge vacuum of athletic facilities, but this is shockingly large,” Riggs said. “You have all types of activities under one roof, and then you couple that with amenities that frankly most parents of athletes aren’t used to having, which is generous bathrooms, good concessions, activities for siblings, a hotel, a liquor license. You have all of this in one place.
John Guidugli, who visited on behalf of the Hamilton Community Foundation, was impressed with what he saw.
“It’s a pretty impressive facility,” he said. “They’ve done a tremendous job here, creating a destination for athletes and families.”
“I think it brings a lot of potential to athletes and families, and individuals, groups, to the community, to utilize the new facility once it’s built, but also the local businesses that will be around it.”
Such businesses already have appeared around the original Spooky Nook, Beiler and Riggs say.
Guidugli added: “It’s very impressive. Very well thought-out, very well run. I’m certainly impressed with my first visit here, to see the scope, the quality and the planning and logistics that they’ve done here.”
Dan Bates, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, also can see the impact the proposed $85 million to $90 million Spooky Nook Sports and Champion Mill can have on Hamilton, both as a sports facility and for conventions or trade shows.
“I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this,” Bates said.
He was so impressed by the quality and beauty of his hotel room, he sent photos to friends, saying, “Look where I am,” something he said he never does. The Hamilton delegation as a whole was impressed with the quality of the facilities, the professionalism of the operations and the good customer service.
“What I like about it is the athletics brings in everything, that’s major revenue,” Bates said. “But I’ve really been paying attention to flexible use of space and the other populations this will serve. It’s not just about athletics. That’s their business, but when you look at space for leadership training and conventions, and stuff like that, it’s pretty phenomenal.”
The Spooky Nook operators also have been impressed by the sports dedication of teams, leagues and athletic associations in southwest Ohio and surrounding places.
In the region around Hamilton, with teams, leagues and youth sports academies “there’s just a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for a facility like this,” Beiler said. It’s much greater, he said, than there was in the region around the original Spooky Nook, which took much more of a wait-and-see attitude to what became the largest complex of its kind in the country.
“We’re excited about where we are, and feeling really positive about some steps that are about to be undertaken … with some of the funding commitments.
“We pride ourselves on providing first-class services, so our turfs are always taken care of. The hardwood floors are redone every year. The sport-court surfaces, they’re clean, and they’re safe to play on. So we’re focused on providing a quality product in a clean environment, with excellent customer service.
And Beiler is happy to be working with a beloved Hamilton landmark, the former Champion Paper mill.
Vice Mayor Carla Fiehrer told Beiler: “You’ve taken a beloved facility to so many people in Hamilton and you’re turning it into something, and I think that’s why you have so much support from people in Hamilton — because they have great memories. They have parents, grandparents and themselves that worked there, and you’re bringing it back to life for them. And that’s huge.”
Beiler agreed that “there are very few people that we’ve talked to that don’t have a story.”
He said not all the Champion complex will be retained, “But the wall on B Street will, and I think when we rework and redesign that B Street canyon, I think the experience is just going to be phenomenal. It’s going to feel like an old city, but something new.”
The sports complex will be on the west side of B Street, with hardwood, sport-court and indoor turf, along with the fitness center. On the river side of B Street will be a hotel, restaurant and supporting business center.
Hamilton Mayor Patrick Moeller predicted to Beiler, “Our citizens and athletes will embrace your vision…. And Champion Papers becomes Champion sports and athletes. That’s just a natural.”