HOF Village exec promotes tourism as a tool for economic development

AKRON — A year ago, the Hall of Fame Village powered by Johnson Controls was full of dirt and full of hope.

A lot has changed, but there’s still a long way to go, said Michael Crawford, president and chief executive officer of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Co., during a presentation Thursday during the roundtable luncheon. Akron held at the University of Akron Quaker Station.

“We’re not done yet, by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ve built things now. We’ve got guest experiences now,” Crawford said.

The project took time, but it is falling into place, he said.

“The thing is, we tried to make and create a destination in a very short time,” he said. “However, it takes some time for people to try to figure out how to use it and what to do with it.”

Hall of Fame Village may be in Canton, but it’s a project that can benefit Summit and Portage counties, Crawford said. Canton and Akron are close and should think like partners. By working together, communities can use tourism to create economic development.

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Michael Crawford, President and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company, is the guest speaker for the Akron Roundtable at the University of Akron's Quaker Station.

“Tourism is the best kind of economic development,” Crawford said, because people come to a city, spend money, and leave. “It doesn’t cost you a ton of money. It makes you money.”

Crawford — who worked 25 years with Disney and four more years with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts — cited tourist spots across the state and noted that different attractions are growing in clusters. Businesses take notice of these clusters and are attracted to amusement and entertainment areas, he said.

“Now why do you think that is?” asked Crawford. In his experiences, companies are interested in catchment areas because they can be used to attract workers. “Thus, economic development can arise from the creation of tourism.”

Tourism generates direct spending from people visiting an attraction, but it also generates indirect spending and creates jobs, Crawford said.

A study by Visit Canton, the county’s visitors and convention bureau, says tourism generated $1.9 billion for the county in 2021. Of that, $1.1 billion was direct spending in the hotels, restaurants and facilities. The rest was spent on other businesses that support tourist sites.

“Direct spending in tourism leads to a much larger increase than people generally imagine,” Crawford said.

Diversify beyond one destination

Hall of Fame Resort has expanded its business since its beginnings as the creator of the Hall of Fame Village, a campus around the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is central to the development, attracting fans from across the country.

As a destination, the Hall of Fame Village is one of three verticals in the Hall of Fame Resort business plan. The company also has a media division which uses its Pro Football Hall of Fame connection to produce football-related programs and content. There is also a gaming division which created the Hall of Fantasy League and which has ties to online gaming and sports betting.

“Now what we’re doing is diversifying and building a business that can entertain people in different ways,” Crawford said.

Michael Crawford, President and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company, is the guest speaker for the Akron Roundtable at the University of Akron's Quaker Station.

Development of the Hall of Fame Village dates back to 2014, although efforts to acquire property for the project began several years earlier.

The first phase saw the construction of the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, which replaced Fawcett Stadium, and the development of several sports fields for youth sporting events and programs.

Create digestible bites

That initial project — estimated at nearly $1 billion — had an unfinished hotel foundation and an empty school building when Crawford began working with Hall of Fame Village in December 2018.

“What I realized quickly is that you want to keep building and growing. You want to give things an opportunity, digestible bites to take in a way,” Crawford said.

His first step was to divide the project into three phases. The first phase required finishing works at the level of the stadium and the sports grounds.

“It was something we had to deal with immediately,” he said.

The second phase accelerated in 2019 as Hall of Fame Village and Gordon Pointe Acquisition combined to create Hall of Fame Resort.

“I like to talk about phase two as building the destination,” Crawford said.

Michael Crawford, President and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company, is the guest speaker for the Akron Roundtable at the University of Akron's Quaker Station.

While the first phase was about developing assets where the company could hold events and programs, the second phase creates an opportunity for people to visit, play and stay for a few days, Crawford said.

The new company completed the stadium, then purchased and renovated the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in downtown Guangzhou. The Constellation Center for Excellence was built, along with a domed structure which is the 100,000 square foot performance center.

The Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic kicked off its annual college fair at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Village Center for Performance.

The second phase also includes the Play-Action Plaza, which provides space for outdoor events. The space includes a zip line called “The Forward Pass”. There are plans to install a Ferris wheel, which will be known as “The Red Zone” as it has 20 gondolas. In soccer, the red zone is the area between the 20-yard line and the end zone.

Crawford said he expects more attractions to be added to the Play-Action Plaza.

Still under construction is the Fan Engagement Zone, a commercial promenade that stretches north from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A football-themed Build-A-Bear Workshop store opened last week and plans to open a Shula’s restaurant later this year. Future tenants include a Helix eSports complex operated by Esports Entertainment Group and a TopGolf Swing suite affiliated with The Brew Kettle, a craft brewery in northeast Ohio.

In the coming months, construction is expected to begin for a 180-room Tapestry by Hilton hotel and a football-themed indoor water park.

Not smooth

The Hall of Fame Village project encountered other obstacles along the way.

The Hall of Fame Resort trades stock on the Nasdaq stock exchange and uses stock and warrants to secure its funding. But the stock’s value fell below $1 earlier this year and the stock is under threat of delisting. The company is asking shareholders to approve the use of a stock split to avoid being delisted.

The company is also in conflict with Johnson Controls, an international company that in 2016 signed a naming rights agreement with Hall of Fame Village. Earlier this year, Johnson Controls said it was leaving the naming rights deal due to project delays. The two companies are working to resolve the dispute.

The problems do not hinder the Hall of Fame Resort’s efforts to develop an entertainment company based on professional football.

While working for Disney, Crawford said he learned that no Disney park was ever considered complete. Disney is always working to change and improve, and Hall of Fame Village strives to follow that model, Crawford said.

The campus is an entertainment hub that includes a business center, space for indoor and outdoor activities, and attractions for all ages.

“That’s how you create a destination. And you keep creating things year after year. Stay, play and enjoy,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s presentation will air on WKSU at 8 p.m. on September 22.

The next Akron roundtable will take place on October 20 and will feature the Superintendent of Schools for the City of Akron, Christine Fowler Mack. His presentation is titled “Hope in a Post-Pandemic World: Meeting Our Challenges Together and Seizing Our Opportunities”.

Contact Edd at 330-580-8484 or [email protected] On Twitter: @epritchardREP

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