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As college football Hall of Fame closes, South Bend seeks new use for building

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The College Football Hall of Fame will close Sunday with much less fanfare than when it arrived in South Bend 17 years ago amid high expectations, leaving city officials scrambling to try to sell the 58,000-square-foot downtown facility with its $2.8 million price tag.

“Of course you never want to see an attraction leave. I’m turning my attention on how to fill that property. You don’t want to just have that property just sitting there,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said.

The mayor has described the building, which has a small football field out front covered by artificial turf, as an unofficial town green where people have gathered for road races and charity walks, to watch outdoor movies and to see football greats being enshrined into the hall.

The National Football Foundation announced three years ago it was moving the hall to Atlanta after failing to draw the crowds expected when it moved the facility from Ohio to South Bend in 1995. The original plan called for the hall to open in Atlanta in 2012, but because of funding setbacks, it is now expected to open in 2014.

The move leaves South Bend officials weighing the best uses for the building for which the city is still paying off $6.4 million of the $18 million in bonds it issued to build the facility.

While an attraction that would draw people downtown, such as a museum or similar exhibition, might be ideal, such a business likely would require a substantial investment, Buttigieg said. The next best option might be an office building or retail space that would bring people downtown, he said.

“Ideally you want something that is a catalyst for further investment and activity and energy downtown,” said Scott Ford, the city’s executive director of community investment.

Area residents have suggested the building be turned into everything from a Notre Dame hall of fame to an indoor playground and recreation center to a variety of shops. But so far, no one has made a formal offer to the city for the building.

Buttigieg said he is confident the city will find a good tenant for the facility, saying South Bend has shown it is resilient.

“One of the things South Bend is best at is taking old things and turning it into new things,” Buttigieg said.

He pointed to the East Race Waterway, used by industry in the early 1900s and now serving as a water course that attracts kayakers from throughout the Midwest; the former Central High School, which was converted into apartments; an old train depot that now houses a data center; and a technology park at the site where Studebakers once were made.

City officials once thought the hall was a key factor in reviving the city. When the NFF announced in 1992 that it would move the hall to South Bend, then-Mayor Joseph Kernan, who later became governor, said the city could “bring 200,000 people a year to this facility in our sleep.” But the hall drew about 115,000 people the first year it opened and about 60,000 annually after that.

Rick Walls, who served as executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame from 2005-07, said the hall was a victim of expectations that were too high. Predictions that people driving along the Indiana Toll Road would stop at the hall never materialized, he said.

“It just shows you the business is very difficult, no matter what your product is,” said Walls, who is now executive director of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum. “The hall of fame is a great facility, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a fantastic building and the exhibits and the archives are all top notch. It’s just hard to do.”

Walls, who also serves as president of the International Sports Heritage Association, said most sports halls of fames and museums are getting by.

“They’re fighting and the challenges are there like with any museum. The economy for most seems to have gotten a little better this past year,” he said.

Though it didn’t happen in South Bend, city officials are eager to move forward with the next chapter in the building’s history. City leaders say they hope someone will make an offer on the building by the end of March.

“We’re waiting to see what proposals come in,” Ford said.



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