Tour of ‘the Nook’ brings visions of what could be in Hamilton

Words fail when describing the enormous size of the Spooky Nook sports complex — or “the Nook,” as they call it here.

Even photos and videos don’t quite do justice to the country’s largest indoor sports facility. The Journal-News traveled with Hamilton leaders this week to visit the complex, which Spooky Nook Sports hopes to build of similar scale in Hamilton at the site of the former Champion Paper mill.

Leading a tour for Hamilton civic leaders on Friday, company founder Sam Beiler said he hopes to start construction on the facility at Hamilton’s former Champion Paper mill in June. Work on the $85 million to $90 million project will take about 18 months.

He said Spooky Nook continues to work on financing, “but we’re feeling very good about where we are, and the likelihood of breaking ground in June is pretty high.”

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Build it and they will come rings true for sports complex

Indoor sports complex to begin construction in 2017

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Here’s one way to describe the immense size of the complex in Manheim, Pa., near the city of Lancaster: From the outside, it looks like a gigantic distribution warehouse that seem to extend on and on along highways. In fact, that’s what the building used to be. Armstrong used to store its flooring and ceiling-tile products in it while they awaited shipment, before the building went vacant for eight years, developed a leaky roof and had “five tribes of raccoons” living in it, Beiler said.

The complex’s gigantic centerpiece building has “just about 14 acres under roof,” Beiler said.

And then there are outdoor facilities, such as “the dome,” which engulfs an artificial turf field like a gigantic white plastic bubble, and serves as the indoor-practice portion of the U.S. women’s field hockey team, which is based here.

Other sports played or practiced at the facility include the usual soccer, softball, baseball, volleyball, lacrosse, basketball and wrestling, as well as more niche sports like futsal (a version of soccer on a flatter surface), pickle ball (like tennis, but with paddles and whiffle balls), and ultimate Frisbee.

The complex, which opened in June 2013, also has as a 200-meter track, fitness and weight-lifting areas, and hosts dozens of fitness classes every week. An American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course is currently being built.

In 2014, the facility had about 600,000 visitors. In 2015, attendance was about 800,000. In 2016, the year’s millionth visitor arrived in mid-November, according to Beiler.

This weekend, the Nook was swarmed by volleyball teams, and, “starting (Saturday), we’ll have 10,000 people a day that will come through the building,” Beiler said, “mostly for volleyball, but there’s a pretty significant softball clinic that’s occurring —Ken Eriksen with the U.S. Women’s National Team is leading that — and there’ll be a little bit of field hockey.”

Beiler said visitors book thousands of hotel rooms per day in the area. The Pennsylvania facility also employs more then 530 people, about 100 of them are high school students, plus more than 150 full-time positions with benefits and insurance.

Other attractions include a large climbing-wall area, and large event spaces that can be used for conventions, dinners, weddings, corporate gatherings and even bridge tournaments, according to Beiler.

But mostly the Nook is a haven for young athletes and their parents, who visit from as far as 3½ hours away for tournaments, as well as local teams that can train here, and area families or individuals who hold about 2,000 memberships.

Hamilton Vice Mayor Carla Fiehrer, after seeing the Pennsylvania facility and hearing what changes would be made for a Hamilton facility — such as more area for baseball, said, “they are so committed to making it work in Hamilton, and I absolutely think it will.”

“I can see it drawing the crowds on the weekends,” she said, “but then they’re going to make it open to Badin High School and Hamilton High and West Side Little League. It will become a community facility Monday through Thursday night, which is great for us.”

More than most places that host sports tournaments, Beiler said Spooky Nook pays particular attention to needs of the parents, who appreciate roomier bleachers or other places they can watch from.

“When (my wife) and I were traveling when our daughter played volleyball, there were innumerable places we went, where you couldn’t see, you couldn’t get to the courts, it was too packed,” Beiler said. “I kind of have space issues, I like to have breathing room around me. And that’s why we put in much of the mezzanine. It was about viewing and making it more comfortable for spectators, because that’s the last thing that a lot of tournament facilities think of, is the parents, who are actually paying the bills, by the way.”

The Spooky Nook sports complex in Pennsylvania has 200,000 square feet of mezzanine in the building, according to Beiler. Thought not all of that mezzanine serves as places for observers to watch. Some of it includes offices and large meeting rooms.

Beiler opened Spooky Nook after a 21-year career with Auntie Anne’s, the soft pretzel shops found in many malls across the country.

Beiler, who had worked for Auntie Anne’s in various capacities since 1989 before becoming chairman and CEO in 2001, sold the company to Roark Capital in 2010 to be more involved in the revitalization of downtown Lancaster, according to media reports at the time.

He has restored about 10 buildings in Lancaster, including two warehouses and apartment buildings.

“I like to take old buildings and do something with them,” he said.

Spooky Nook’s interior now includes a 135-room hotel, known as the Warehouse Hotel. It also has a 275-seat American restaurant called the Forklift & Palate, where most would never guess the elegant tables and wall treatments were constructed from wooden pallets that once were used during the facility’s era as a warehouse. The complex also has two bars.

The Warehouse Hotel has some exposed metal beams and pipes that remain to serve as ceiling-high artwork and reminders of the building’s commercial past.

The complex also has more varied concessions than most sports facilities, plus a smoothie bar and coffee shop.

A partnership with Orthopaedic Associates of Lancaster means “we have an orthopaedic practice on site,” Beiler said, where they can triage, X-ray and put casts on injuries. This weekend, with the large volleyball tournament, five athletic trainers were stationed throughout the facility.

Plans for the Hamilton facility call for using the bubble-like structure, known as “the dome,” also as a trade-show space, although that would not be the primary market, Beiler said.

Spooky Nook is named after the road it was located on. Hamilton’s facility likely will be named something very close to Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill, according to Beiler.

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