D.J. Nivens stood barefoot on the outdoor sand volleyball courts tucked deep in the Canal Place complex in downtown Akron and used numerous superlatives as he tried to describe the unusual setting.

Weird. Crazy. Awesome. Impressive. Mind-blowing.

Just a few months earlier, the space was a trashy concrete pad in the shadows of the B.F. Goodrich Co. smokestacks, sitting among the red brick industrial buildings where workers once churned out tires by the thousands. But now the area, which abuts the Towpath Trail, has been transformed into Canal Courts, an urban park with four volleyball courts filled four nights a week with league players — many of them young professionals who live outside the city — setting, spiking and handing out high-fives.

"It's kind of crazy," Nivens, 29, of Stow, said just before he started a game on a recent Monday night. "You're playing in a place where Akron has so much history. You have the factories. You have the smokestacks here. When you sit back and look at it, this is actually really cool where we are. If you know anything about Akron history, it's just kind of mind-blowing that we're here hanging out and playing volleyball."

Canal Courts, which opened last month, is a collaborative effort among the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and Summit Sports & Social, which has been running popular adult volleyball leagues downtown since 2016. Summit Sports used to host games near the Canal Park baseball stadium downtown, but it lost access to those courts because of the ongoing construction of the State Street bridge and Main Street.

The Knight Foundation, which has been working on projects to promote economic and social activity in and around downtown, stepped in to provide a $155,000 grant to the Canalway Coalition for the construction of the new courts. The Canalway Coalition has leased the property for $1 a year for five years from the Covington Group, which operates Canal Place.

The raised courts feature permanent nets, lighting and about 800 tons of sand — much more than originally thought would be needed. There are bleachers and picnic tables set up on the sides for spectators.

The courts can be difficult to find at first. They are well off South Main Street among the maze of Canal Place buildings — a mix of renovated offices and still vacant structures. They also sit behind a line of trees and along the Towpath Trail.

It's not unusual to see people who are walking or biking on the trail stop and marvel at the unexpected sight of so many people playing sand volleyball downtown. That's what the Knight Foundation envisioned when it provided the grant.

As music by Queen, Stevie Wonder and other artists played on a temporary outdoor sound system, Nivens, who serves as the announcer for the Akron RubberDucks, admitted that he had never visited the area before the courts were installed.

"It's real impressive," he said.

The Summit Social leagues, which run Monday through Thursday, bring in hundreds of players. Andrew Novak, who runs Summit Sports with business partner Logan Jennings, estimated that 70 percent are young professionals working around downtown. He estimated that 75 percent of the players are between ages 24 and 40.

As communities struggle to attract and retain young talent, the volleyball courts are seen as another amenity for that age group.

Novak and Jennings want to turn the park into a "rec room" for downtown. They also would like to host other events at the site, including sand castle building, badminton, horseshoes and perhaps ice-related activities in the winter.

The courts have been a big hit with the players. The previous location had only two courts, and there was a waiting list for teams to get into the league.

"It makes you feel like you're downtown," player Jessica Pamer, 31, of Cuyahoga Falls, said about the setting.

"It's a nice reminder of where Akron came from and where we are headed," fellow player John Muehleisen, 31, of Cuyahoga Falls, added.

Missing Falls Brewery, which is located in the same complex, is sponsoring the league and has noticed an influx of volleyball-related business. The brewery opted to open on Mondays because of the courts and offers discounts for volleyball players.

"It’s bringing good business into us," co-founder Will Myers said.

R. Shea Brewing Co. also will soon open a production brewery and restaurant within the complex.

The courts are open to the public when the leagues aren't using them.

"All you need to bring is a ball, really," Novak said.

 

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.