When Canal Park, home of the Akron RubberDucks (Double-A; Eastern League), opened in 1997, a downtown location was not an automatic win for all involved. Today, that opening is seen locally as a cornerstone of revitalization for downtown Akron.
The late 1990s were an interesting time in MiLB ballpark development. For every Fifth Third Field in Toledo there was a P&C Stadium (now NBT Bank Stadium) in Syracuse. Despite the successful openings of Progressive Field and Oriole Park as downtown MLB venues, a MiLB ballpark downtown location was not a given, as seen in the development of the home of the then-Syracuse SkyChiefs: there was a heated public discussion over the merits of keeping the ballpark at the MacArthur Stadium location (which eventually happened) or build downtown. The allure of abundant parking and free land carried the day, though there are still local fans (as we found out during a 2021 visit) who rue that decision.
So the decision to build a new downtown Akron ballpark came after Canton-Akron Indians owner Mike Agganis became dissatisfied with Munson Memorial Ballpark and sought to move the team to Akron. He gained the ear of Akron economic-development officials, who saw a new ballpark as a way to further growth downtown. From Cleveland.com:
In 1997, trendy restaurants weren’t lining Main Street. Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. was founded that year. The downtown hospitals had yet to begin their expansion projects. Buildings targeted for demolition for the stadium were built between 1901 and 1925. Eight of 12 buildings on the site were boarded or abandoned.
“When the mayor came up with putting the stadium there, it was kind of the era where new stadiums were going up downtown. Instead of going up in the suburbs surrounded by a sea of parking, the new idea was to put them downtown and to have them generate new life into older areas that were declining,” [former Akron finance director Rick] Merolla said.
At the time, minor-league parks sat in the middle of nowhere, like the Munson Memorial Stadium, which “really didn’t generate any economic development for the city of Canton,” Merolla said.
Of course, it wasn’t just the building of the ballpark that kept folks coming downtown once the ballpark opened. After an attendance slump, Ken Babby purchased the team after the 2012 season, overhauled the front page and installed likes of West Akron native Jim Pfander as GM. That led to some creative marketing in the form of extreme foods and programming more than just baseball at the park: Pfander estimates Canal Park was used 123 times during the course of last year.
Some economists would argue that downtown Akron’s resurgence would have happened with or without the opening of Canal Park. Perhaps they are right, but we will never know: Canal Park did indeed open, and Akron residents have enjoyed a downtown renaissance since that opening.
Photo courtesy Akron RubberDucks.