CLEVELAND, Ohio — The company that operates the International Exposition Center, which for 35 years has hosted major events in the city, said Wednesday that it is closing the facility, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The global pandemic has decimated the event industry as well as many other businesses and has ultimately led to this decision,” said a press statement from I-X Center Corp., which operates the city-owned facility.
However, one long-time event executive said he is hopeful the facility’s closure is not permanent.
“I’d like to believe this story has another chapter,” said Tom Baugh, the CEO of Marketplace Events, which produces both the Great Big Home and Garden Show and the Cleveland Home and Remodeling Expo, two major events held annually at the I-X Center.
Baugh, whose company is based in Solon but operates events across the United States and Canada, called the I-X Center “one of the best two or three consumer venues in North America. It’s an extraordinary venue. I think people take it for granted.”
The 2.2-million-square-foot event center is owned by the city of Cleveland, which acquired it by threat of eminent domain in early 1999. Since that time, it has been leased to the I-X Center Corp., which handled the day-to-day operations for the facility.
The city initially acquired the building to tear it down to make room for a new runway at adjacent Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. That runway was subsequently determined unnecessary.
A spokeswoman for the I-X Center Corp. said it was the company’s decision to close the facility, even though the city owns the property. The closure is expected to put at least 176 full- and part-time employees out of work, according to information filed with the state.
A spokeswoman for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson did not respond to several questions about the closure. Late Wednesday, the city released a statement that said, in part, “The city recognizes the challenge operating an exposition facility in an industry that has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The city of Cleveland will be reviewing options relative to the future uses for the 2 million square foot building.”
Baugh said he was not surprised by the decision. He said he has been involved in conversations for several years about the future of the I-X Center. Those conversations involved Jackson, the I-X Center Corp. and Lou Vitantonio, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association, producer of the Cleveland Auto Show.
Baugh said the I-X Center’s business model was under stress even before the pandemic. The mayor assured him, in meetings, that the I-X Center’s continued operation was important to the city.
“I’m taking the mayor at his word,” said Baugh. “The city of Cleveland owns the venue and ultimately makes the final decision if it reopens.”
Vitantonio, with the auto show, said he, too, is hopeful that the city can resolve the issue. He’s cautiously optimistic that the show will go forward in 2021, even with the health pandemic. Currently, the state of Ohio puts restrictions on mass gatherings and events because of the virus.
“We do have some challenges,” he acknowledged. “But I am optimistic that we can put something together and get that building back open.”
Both the auto show and the home and garden show have contracts with the I-X Center to host their events through 2024. The city’s lease with the I-X Center Corp. also runs through 2024.
Ultimately, if the I-X Center doesn’t reopen, Baugh said he’s unsure if his events could continue in the city.
Downtown Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center is a fraction of the size of the I-X Center, and may be too small for some events.
David Gilbert, president of Destination Cleveland, said the I-X Center and the convention center are complementary facilities – with the former hosting large consumer events and the latter, smaller conventions and business gatherings.
“The I-X Center serves a really important need,” he said. Among its attributes: its large size, close-in parking and access to highways.
Said Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, producer of the Progressive Cleveland Boat Show: “Our boat show, like the other big expositions annually held in the I-X Center, is more than a fun event. Behind the entertaining image and family attractions, there is the very serious business of selling boats and fishing products by a host of northern Ohio small businesses and dealerships that depend on the show to keep them and all their employees going during the winter months. In many cases, sales from the show for our exhibitors can be more than 40 percent of their annual sales. The boat show is a critical component in the northern Ohio economy and we can only encourage the city of Cleveland to move swiftly to find a new operator so these events can continue.”
In 1942, the U.S. War Department authorized construction of the massive facility for military components, calling it the Cleveland Bomber Plant and later the Cleveland Tank Plant. It was operated by General Motors.
The building was vacant from 1970 to 1977, when the Park Corp. bought it and began turning it into an exhibit hall. The I-X Center was dedicated in 1985. Raymond Park, founder of the Park Corp., is largely credited with making the facility a success.
The last event held at the center was the Cleveland Auto Show in February and early March. The 54th Summit Racing Equipment I-X Piston Powered Auto-Rama, scheduled for March, was canceled two days prior to opening because of the pandemic.