Champions Park site slated for improvements, growth to continue boosting tourism

Between antiques extravaganzas, car parts swap meets, gun shows, a Lionel Train show, Wake the Lake races and more, Champions Park has become a popular location for much more than solely the annual county fair.

And, plans are underway to advance the Champions Park site to take advantage of not only the on-site visitors, but also to attract some of people in the about 55,000 vehicles that drive past the exit for State Route 41 on Interstate 70 every day. 

The plan creates a new gateway into Champions Park that is flanked by an area slated for a hotel and retail development.

Clark County Commissioner Melanie Flax Wilt says the coming of a hotel makes the exit a good place for business, industry, travel and tourism to come together.

Even in a time when hotels are struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic, Flax Wilt says the commissioners have been assured this is one of the best locations to site a hotel.

Though projections show the hotel industry could take another 12 to 18 months to rebound, Flax Wilt says when a 120-bed hotel is chosen to snuggle up next to the Park, a chain of events will unfold that could make the location “one of the best (combined) fairgrounds and activity sites in the State of Ohio.”

Securing the hotel is “the domino that has to fall first,” she says, because the sale of the land it will be on is expected to generate an estimated $3 million to improve Champions Park.

Updates to the entrance tops the list of priorities, as it will announce to the eye that Champions Park is a travel destination. The funds also will be used for a new building for the fair board and to address two longstanding problems.

First, pedestrian drop-off point to make fair week access both safer and more convenient for customers, particularly children. And second, retaining pond to collect the water that tends to pool near the front of the grounds.

This is not the first time the location has been seen as prime for attracting visitors to Clark County.

In 2014, the high-volume traffic led the Chamber of Greater Springfield to invest $500,000 into a digital billboard at the exit of I-70 onto Route 41 to advertise county tourism events 24 hours a day. Decades earlier, the same interstate access led to the siting of Prime Ohio I Corporate Park across the street from the fairgrounds, and a yet-to-be developed Prime Ohio II that sits across the interstate.

The interstate traffic landed a Love’s Travel Stop on the exit’s south side in 2017, the intersection has long been a conduit for generating economic activity and tax revenue for Springfield and Clark County.

Chris Schutte, a vice president of destination marketing and communications at The Chamber of Greater Springfield, says the Champions Park complex currently generates about 40 percent to 50 percent of the visitors that come into Clark County, making it the number one driver of people coming into Springfield. But, the events there only generate about 15 percent to 20 percent of the overnight stays in the area, which is where an economic impact can be seen.

A “home base hotel” on site, Schutte says, “would definitely influence more people to make it an overnight option.”

But likely more important, he says, is that the current plans will make the fairgrounds complex more attractive destination, which is a step on the road to making it a consistent, repeat overnight-stay location.

Dean Blair, executive director of the Champions Park, agrees.

Champions Park hosts about 200 events in a normal year, with an additional 100 put on by the Champions Center, operated independently by the Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association.

In addition to the boat races, antique shows and swap meets, the site also hosts 20 cross country running events annually, and Blair says he was optimistic about bringing the first fishing tournament onboard before the COVID pandemic emerged.

He says because many of the events are in their infancy, he expects them to grow.

A hotel, he added, “just complements and enhances the ability to attract new events,” and will make Champions Park a place that offers promoters a rare and winning combination for their events: easy interstate access; a 400,000 LED sign that advertises their events to a huge audience daily; and a hotel just steps away from the venue.

Additionally, Blair says that as a citizen of Clark County, he loves the idea of a new hotel option that could provide accommodations to people who too often have to leave the county when Springfield hotels are booked.

Additional stays in the county will be a help to local business and tax revenues, he says. Nor will it hurt that taxes generated by hotel customers will contribute to the future marketing of Springfield and Clark County events.

Flax Wilt says a crucial element in the plan is to find the hotel that is the best fit for the Champions Park, because it sets the tone for the 18,300 square feet of retail, restaurant and service businesses also included in the project.

Developer Dillon Development Partners is aiming for a “mid-tier” hotel – one that will match the business and visitors at Champions Park, Flax Wilt says. The company then will connect with like-market companies to fill the other slots in the development.

Although Champions Park will remain part of the county, plans are for the hotel to become part of the city, just like both Prime Ohio Parks and the Fairgrounds Lake area. Having areas annexed to the city qualifies them for water service at City of Springfield rates.

Because of the common interests involved, Flax Wilt and others promote the idea that the intersection of I-70 and Route 41 is not just an entrance to our county, it’s a gateway into Springfield.

Blair says that while the new development will bring change – and change can make people nervous – the moves will solidify the future of Champions Park for decades to come.

As a former 4-Her, Flax Wilt is also sensitive to the changes, including the deletion of the word “fairgrounds” from the facility’s name.

But as the founder of a public relations firm she says that “with an event out there almost every weekend,” the Champions Park is “so much more than one week of a fair.”

The commissioners will continue to consult with the fair board and other parties as the project proceeds and additional decisions are made.

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