The vision is grand.
It’s a vision that grew in large part out of a simple question asked several years ago of developer Stu Lichter. His stream-of-consciousness answer spurred a meeting shortly afterward in early 2014 between him and David Baker, who then was just a few days into his new job as president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Out of that meeting, the Johnson Controls Pro Football Hall of Fame Village was born.
“I have been involved in a lot of pretty significant developments in my career. But I don’t think there’s anything that even remotely approaches what the potential game-changing impact of this project is in so many ways,” said Lichter, head of California-based Industrial Realty Group. “People would die to get a manufacturer with 300 or 400 jobs. This is better than getting multiple major GM plants. This is every week, major tourist dollars coming in to this area from out of the area and creating thousands and thousands of jobs — and potentially turning the economics of the area around.”
Lichter recalled his involvement began in a meeting with former Canton Mayor William Healy II over business issues. As they talked, Healy asked Lichter for recommendations on how to help Canton’s economy.
Lichter has built a decades-long reputation redeveloping primarily large industrial properties in Northeast Ohio and around the nation. His resume in Akron alone includes Canal Place, property around Akron Fulton International Airport, the East End redevelopment of the former Goodyear campus and building the new Goodyear headquarters. Lichter and IRG also are redeveloping the former Hoover property in North Canton.
Lichter said he immediately brought up the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the mayor.
“I’ve been driving by the hall forever,” said Lichter, who saw the hall of fame as a “diamond in the rough.”
Lichter also said he had no aspirations to polish that diamond. “I’m busy as hell,” he said.
But he told the mayor: “You have the best brand in the country sitting in your backyard.” Then, off the top of his head, Lichter shared his ideas — many of which eventually became part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Village project.
The mayor quickly set up a meeting at the hall of fame, where Lichter and Baker talked for the first time.
“Fortunately, I arrived on David’s third day,” Lichter said, laughing. “He had a lot of aspirations and a lot of big ideas.”
Baker, whose background includes being mayor of Irvine, Calif., said he and the hall’s board of trustees had already been talking about building a hotel and conference center on the property to complement the hall of fame.
“Stu’s vision was so much bigger than mine,” Baker said. “At every turn, I think he sees things bigger and better. ... Stu, through his career, has specialized in finding something and repurposing it. I think he is very good at making complex things simple.”
Lichter was talked into jointly developing the village with the hall of fame. The reaction from the National Football League — the hall of fame is independent of the NFL — and others was overwhelmingly positive as word spread of the plans to expand and redevelop the hall of fame site and adjacent stadium, Lichter and Baker said.
“Frankly, the vision keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger because people keep coming with new ideas,” Lichter said. “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that? When they’re practical, we adopt them.”
Significant pieces began to fall into place. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson donated $11 million in 2014 and got naming rights to what previously was called Fawcett Stadium. As plans to rebuild the old stadium were drawn up, Lichter said he and the group decided to incorporate luxury boxes.
“Because we realized with the reaction this thing is getting we can sell luxury boxes in Canton, Ohio,” Lichter said. “And the same thing on the naming rights. We had an idea there was good commercial value here for business-to-business.”
The planners designed what they call an NFL-caliber stadium that can easily accommodate concerts and other nonsports entertainment by designing an unusual stage that opens out of one side of the seating area. That will put Benson Stadium in warm-weather competition with other musical venues in the area, including Blossom Music Center in Summit County.
The new multi-use stadium is part of a deliberate plan to expand the versatility and year-round attractiveness of what will become the village.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ