Spooky Nook at Champion Mill lost around $15 million worth of business because the sports and events side of the 1.2 million-square-foot redevelopment project wasn’t ready, said owner Sam Beiler.
Butler County and the surrounding region lost around 90,000 room nights because Spooky Nook wasn’t ready, he said.
But Beiler is confident Spooky Nook at Champion Mill will have its conference center and hotel side mostly operational by October, and the multi-sports and event side ready for tournaments sometime in September.
The delays that prevented the project from already being open were “not good.” The big delay happened in March 2021 when strong winds toppled a steel structure designed to cover an indoor turf for field sports such as football, field hockey and soccer.
“The progress was moving along reasonably well,” Beiler said. “We had no reason to think we were not on schedule. But the collapse of the steel building seemed to paralyze a lot of things on the project for a period of time.”
Around midnight on March 26, strong winds level 17 erected steel beams for the Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill indoor sports complex. The structure, known as Building 500, had about 17 of 20 eight-foot trusses installed at the southwest part of the complex.
It took several months for the insurance to investigate the incident, and Beiler and his team put that project on hold after it was cleaned up. By this month, though, Beiler said they should have a plan for the next steps in that area, but the goal is to have an indoor turf field, eventually.
The Spooky Nook at Champion Mill has been in the works for six years, ever since Beiler and his team from Pennsylvania came to Hamilton to see the possible second Spooky Nook complex location. The name originates from the street where the Pennsylvania facility resides, and eventually, he’d like to open more locations, but those discussions and decisions are several years down the road, he said.
The Hamilton project is a $165 million redevelopment of the former Champion Mill paper mill ― which closed in 2012 ― that bisects North B Street. To the west is Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill, or internally known as Mill 1, the multi-sport and event facility designed to host competitions and sporting events, and most likely simultaneously.
Across North B Street is Mill 2, the Champion Mill Conference Center and The Warehouse Hotel. This is where nearly 1,000 people had a first look at the facility on May 19 when the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce hosted the Play Ball Gala.
Beiler said it was “a real win” for the much-anticipated Spooky Nook complex, but City Manager Joshua Smith said the complex is a win for the city.
“The whole purpose is not to have a sports complex on the river, but to have a catalyst for the community, and to our small business community,” Smith said at a recent City Council meeting. “That’s what Champion Mill really means to me.”
Smith said when Champion Mill was operating at its height, with 3,000 to 4,000 employees, “those employees powered our small businesses.”
“Our small businesses have struggled for a long time, and to bring 1 million-plus visitors from outside Hamilton into Hamilton on an annual basis, once they’re fully operational, is going to be a huge positive impact for those small businesses,” Smith said.
The 1 million visitor projection is based on data at the original Spooky Nook complex. In a lightly populated area of Pennsylvania ― between Manheim and Mt. Joy with a combined population of just more than 13,000 ― the original Spooky Nook started to attract more than 1 million a year in its third year of operation in 2016.
Spooky Nook officials have projected the Hamilton location will reach that 1-million-a-year mark after its first year. Hamilton, with a population of 62,000-plus, is the capital city of Ohio’s seventh most populous county.
Beiler said his team still has work to do before it’s fully operational. All of the meeting rooms and common areas inside Mill 2 are scheduled to be open by the end of this month. Plans have been approved for the event kitchen, known as the Forklift & Palate restaurant, and the associated bar. That project could take three to four months to complete.
“By the end of October, we should have our own food service facilities up and running in the building,” Beiler said.
The Forklift & Palate is not the only business at Spooky Nook. Second locations for Municipal Brew Works’ and Sara’s House will open later this year in Mill 2. Orthopedic Associates of Southwest Ohio will open a location in Mill 1.
While Mill 2 will be operational by October ― though events are being held at the convention center and most of the hotel rooms are being rented ― Mill 1 will be open by September. Which part of September, Beiler wouldn’t commit.
“For us to really operate on the hardwoods or the other areas of the sports side, we’ll need the main entrance in and the parking lots done,” said Beiler. “I’m not trying to open small corners on that side. We’ll let it take its course.”
Opening in September means the biggest part of the youth tournament season will be behind them, but Beiler insists he’s “not letting up the pressure.”
Beiler took on this renovation project because he saw the potential, even though it would have been cheaper to raze the former paper mill and construct a new building. Beiler had been coming to Hamilton since 2016, working on building the capital stack to construct the project.
Then in March 2020, the pandemic struck. On March 17, 2020, just days after Ohio, and other states, enacted shutdown protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he temporarily laid off 700 employees at his Pennsylvania facility.
Then on March 20, 2020, he was scheduled to close on $70 million worth of bonds for the Champion Mill project.
“So from Tuesday to Friday was an uncomfortable period,” Beiler said. “A wiser person would have stepped back and said, ‘Let’s wait.’”
He didn’t wait because of the commitment he made to the Hamilton city manager, Mayor Pat Moeller and City Council. He was determined to keep his word, which included ignoring those who continue to this day to doubt the project.
“We raised those funds and started, and we had no idea what the next two years would hold,” he said. “But we’ve been walking side-by-side with the city for six years and we decided to keep on moving.”
Though some supply chain issues have impacted the project ― the rooftop HVAC for the concessions at Mill 1 will take several months instead of a few weeks to come in ― Beiler said they were fortunate because he heard in 2021 about the potential issues.
“The general contractor met with the subs (subcontractors) and said, ‘We don’t want to hear about change orders, we don’t want to hear about up-charges. The funding is in place, you buy your materials. You’re responsible to store them. You have to prove that you have them and we’ll pay you for them.’”
And they did.
By its first year of operation, Beiler believes the sports side of the complex “will generate more than 100,000 hotel room nights.” Many of those hotel stays are likely to be outside the city, and some possibly out of the county, as Beiler said Butler County is “slightly under-hoteled.”
“There are 50,000 to 75,000 room nights that are going to have to be picked up throughout the county,” he said.
There are new hotels coming online. The future Well House Hotel at the Anthony Wayne building on South Monument is expected to be open in early 2024, and Beiler said the soon-to-be former Cohen Recycling facility on Black Street will be redeveloped with a hotel of at least 120 rooms.
The recycling company hasn’t confirmed any development plans before the facility relocates a half-mile north on North Third Street. Neil Cohen said in May he and his brother, Ken Cohen, have an agreement with a development company, and “they’re now doing their diligence.”
Beiler said hotels “will be filled pretty quickly because demand drives supply, and I believe there’s enough confidence in demand already that some people are stepping forward.”
The kinds of tournaments that will be at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill will be operated by experienced organizers who know how to run a large event. A 300-team tournament will be the norm.
“When we started in Pennsylvania, if there were 150 teams coming on a weekend, we spent three days planning for it,” he said. “I can tell you now, if we have a 150-team tournament, the president of the Nook will be walking around asking, ‘Why do we only have 150 teams?’”