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Is Downtown Ready for a New SPARC?

Walker Evans Walker Evans Is Downtown Ready for a New SPARC?A rendering of the SPARC project from 2012.
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Today, the old Cooper Stadium site sits empty, but in two years it will become a new hub of energy and activity just southwest of Downtown Columbus. The Sports Pavilion & Automotive Research Complex (SPARC for short) is the multi-purpose project that will re-use the old stadium site, bringing a variety of racing, motorcross and action sport events to the south end of Franklinton. The site will also be home to offices, research facilities and multiple retail tenants when it opens in 2014.

We sat down recently with Bill Schottenstein, Principle of Arshot Investment Corp, to find out more about the details of this project and what sort of timeline is in place for construction and development of the site. Our full interview can be found below:

Walker Evans: Thanks for taking the time today, Bill. I guess to start, can you give us an update on where the project currently stands?

Bill Schottenstein: There are some things I’m not at liberty to discuss right now, but the status of the project is basically that we’ve closed and we’re moving ahead with the plans, the drawings. We’ve actually just began a little bit of work down at the site because we’ve got to clean up some of the site. The first thing we’re going to do renovate the small historic building in the front that was the prior administration building. We’re going to get that in shape so that we can use it as an office and also as a place to take potential clients down to the site. Other than that, we’re just on our methodical path that we follow with every real estate deal, getting things in order.

WE: We’ve been following this project for several years now. Has this project taken longer because of some of the complexities of the site use?

BS: Whenever you have rezoning, and in this case, some opposition to the rezoning, that always extends the process. Part of the reason it took so long was because when we originally signed the contract with the Franklin County Commissioners, we needed to study the site. We didn’t go into this with any preconceived notion exactly of what we would do. We had presented this idea of the race track back in the mid-90s. But that was really ancillary to the idea of the Clippers coming Downtown and having a new stadium and helping to invigorate Downtown. At that point, there was the thought that we don’t want to leave the Cooper Stadium area without something in its place.

So we had just tossed around some ideas, and the race track was the one that seemed to be the most viable. At that point NASCAR was probably at its zenith in popularity and we thought something that could bring activity to the area would be important. The truth was, I didn’t know anything about NASCAR. The little bit of work we did toward the track was done by an engineer at one of the major local engineering firms, who happened to be an amateur racer. He knew something about what it would take, and basically just sat down one afternoon and sketched something up and that was it.

But the reality is that a lot of projects take a long time. To get the The Fifth/Third Tower done took almost five years. Not including the construction. It took five years just to get the contracts done because we had to negotiate with the mall owners and just that took three and a half years. The reality is that deals that are not cookie-cutter take a long time.

WE: Has the Great Recession been a factor in this project at all?

BS: No. But it’s sort of difficult to answer that question. If we had gotten through the entire process two years ago it would be easier to say whether it will be impacted by the downturn. As it turned out, maybe because of the timeframe that the process took, we were enough outside of that 2008 timeframe that it really hasn’t had any impact.

WE: There has been some public opposition, I think most of it centering around the noise issue, right?

BS: The opposition was actually a very small group of people. Some people may not understand that, but we actually had to do polling around the city. The approval rate polled close to 70 percent in German Village. It polled in the 80 percent range in the area around the track. And it’s not really just a track, that’s one thing that I do want to explain. A lot of people we’ve talked to only know what they’ve read in the paper. They don’t really understand what this project is. But even in the outlying areas it polled in the 70 percent range.

But there was a very well funded and sophisticated opposition. They had the ear of the reporter. As a result, they put up a credible fight to the zoning. But the reality is, everything that they feared was something that we weren’t doing anyway. One of the things they wanted to grab onto upfront was about having a drag strip. A week after we signed the contract with the commissioners to study the site, and I told them right then we’re not going to put a drag strip in. First of all, the reason you can be assured that we’re not going to, is that the site isn’t even big enough to put one in. So you don’t have to worry about us doing something that the site cannot contain.

We did a very methodical study of the noise issue. The last thing we wanted to do was build this thing and then be banging our heads against a wall about noise. It’s not worth it to us to do that. When we did the noise study we weren’t even financially invested in the project at that point. It would have been easy to walk away from if the study said that it was not going to work. It wasn’t like had already purchased the site and now we’re stuck.

The other thing that I pointed out to people which – some people give it some credibility, some people don’t – is that in all of the areas that thought they might be impacted by the noise, we also own property there. The Brewery District, the Arena District area – we own property there and some of it is residential. Dick Solove, who was a major real estate developer in Columbus who passed away in 2011 used to state the adage that “it’s a test of a man’s sincerity when he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.” In my opinion, what we’ve done is we’ve put our money where our mouth is. If this were to be disruptive, we’re disrupting our own properties and destroying the value of our own properties. People don’t typically do something that’s going to injure themselves. We had to be convinced that we weren’t going to injure ourselves as well. I think we’ve demonstrated that we’re very confident in what our consultant has designed.

I’ve also said from day one that we are not trying to be the “every weekend race track”. We are not a NASCAR track. The racing is just an adjunct, which I think may help the area. We might be able to bring slightly larger crowds down for it, but it’s going to be on a minimal basis. What I’d rather do it have fewer races and have them be important races, then have a whole slew of races where it’s meaningless.

We’re also working with a number of the sanctioning bodies for electric racing. We think there’s a niche there because every major sanctioning body now has some kind of electric series, or they’re going to have it. The ability to be a home track for an electric series would be a big thing for us. That would do two things. One, it exposes the public to the new technologies. Two, there’s a lack of noise. We think electric racing will appeal more to the Millennial and Gen Y crowd, which is why we’re also looking more toward action sports, rally cars and things like that.

A lot of the opposition really just didn’t care. We had meetings where we’d talk about the jobs this project will create, and we anticipate having jobs that range from minimum wage to jobs that will be filled by PhDs. Some of the opposition would chuckle and say, “no, they’re just mostly all minimum wage type jobs”. And the sad part is that some people we met with who live in the area would say that they would be ecstatic to have more minimum wage job options because right now there’s nothing since the Clippers left. I think the disrespect that was shown to the people that actually live in the area was absolutely disgusting. I don’t know how else to say it. Not everyone is going to be a PhD, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t give them an opportunity and have a job that they can easily get to. A lot of the people in the area don’t have cars, and they could walk or ride a bike and they can get there.

WE: During the 2012 Olympics someone on CU commented that they had fun watching BMX racing and would love to see that kind of sport live in Columbus if it takes place at SPARC.

BS: There’s a piece of the old stadium that we were going to take down, but we decided not to because the structure’s already there to create some of the ramping that we need for a skateboard half-pipe or for BMX chute. We see action sports as a major element to what can be done here. The other thing that’s important to understand is that we can have multiple venues operating at the same time on this site.

Let me go back to the theory, just so everyone understands. For this area to redevelop, it’s not a question of the city coming in and spending some money there. They did the Children’s Services building down there, but it really hasn’t had a dramatic impact. It did clean up that site, but it’s the same people coming to work every day and going home. Maybe once a week they’ll go out and get something to eat, but it’s not enough bodies to have a seachange effect on the area. Our theory is that you’ve got to bring people from outside this area, into this area, because there’s not enough money in the area itself. So you’ve got to bring them in and have them stay in the area for awhile and spend money there. That’s the way you can effect a change in the economic activity in the area.

To accomplish that, we have to have a venue that will have events year round. You can’t just be open fifty weekends per year. It’s got to be 300 or 350 days a year, or even 365 days a year if we can get that done. That’s what we think we’ve created: a big multi-purpose room. For certain events, we think it will draw people from 500 miles away.

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