Whatever happened to SPARC?

Michelle Sullivan

Groundbreaking at the automotive-technology park was announced with fanfare in October 2012, and a racing-star partner soon followed. But there's still no sign of life at old Cooper Stadium.

Drive by old Cooper Stadium on Mound Street, and it doesn't look like much has changed since the Columbus Clippers vacated their former home for Huntington Park in 2008. Stadium lights still hover near the brick structure, undisturbed but for a few thousand missing stadium seats that were sold to fans last summer. Aside from the weeds that now swallow the field, the only sign of life in the 82-year-old building is a banner that covers the original marquee, shooting upward from the lawn in front of the empty ballpark.

It displays the slick, black-and-blue logo of the Sports Pavilion and Automotive Research Complex (SPARC), a facility proposed by Arshot Investment Corp. that will include an automotive research and technology center and a half-mile track with an 8.5-acre paved infield used for test driving, motorsport racing and other spectator events. The concept has been in the works since 2008, when Arshot entered into contract to buy the stadium from Franklin County. When details of the $40 million project were released at a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2012, along with the announcement that luxury car dealer Midwest Auto Group would build a 5-story showroom on site, developers said construction would begin the following spring. But it hasn't, and some are wondering why.

Developers are "getting ready to begin demolition and construction," says Arshot president Bill Schottenstein, but he couldn't say exactly when. With work delayed for a year, the facility is now scheduled to open midyear 2015. Schottenstein says the design process was slower than expected.

"The delay since that 2012 period (when they announced construction would begin spring 2013) has been getting the correct design for the track," he says. "To get it right, we have not forced the timing. We want to be certain that this is a premier track and that it meets the needs of all the users of the track." To do so, they've worked closely on the track design with Michael Waltrip Racing, a NASCAR racing team that brought even more panache to SPARC when they announced their partnership in December 2012.

Securing tenants for the office space in the 50,000-square-foot research and technology center has also proven slower than expected. MAG is the only announced tenant, though Schottenstein says SPARC has commitments from a motorcycle dealer and a few other auto industry-related businesses. "We've got to get everything lined up properly," with tenancy, he says, and "make sure they are on the same time frame." Even with the unannounced tenants, about 40 percent of the building remains available for lease.

Ohio State's Center for Automotive Research is still likely to be involved with SPARC, says center director and SPARC advisory board member Giorgio Rizzoni. He'd been in discussions with Arshot long before plans for SPARC were announced. "One reason he was talking to us was to try to understand how we could partner and develop ideas to benefit everyone," Rizzoni says. From the start, he was intrigued by the concept for its potential to encourage companies and services related to the auto industry to collaborate and incubate.

The advisory board met regularly in the project's early planning stages, Rizzoni says, but meetings have become less frequent. "To be honest, I'm not sure where things stand right now," he says. "I have not been involved with the business side of it. I'm a scientist. I leave those things to them. That's their business, and I suppose they know what they're doing."

SPARC cleared more than a few hurdles, including gaining community support and acquiring zoning approvals, in the time between Arshot's initial interest in the stadium and the formal closing on the $3.4 million purchase in August 2012.

"The whole process took longer than we were originally anticipating," Schottenstein says. "We were originally shooting for 2014 [to open]. When we didn't get approvals on time, we just moved it back a year. If we'd gotten approvals two years earlier, we'd have started two years earlier."

Because development plans include demolishing nearly half of the existing stadium, plus an adjacent vacant county building, and repurposing the remaining portion of the stadium into a multi-use sports complex, Arshot needed Columbus City Council to approve rezoning the 47-acre site for commercial development. But first, they had to secure a recommendation through the Southwest Area Commission, a community organization that represents the Franklinton area.

While some local residents supported Arshot's plan for its potential economic impact, others feared noise would be a nuisance to the neighborhood and harmful to nearby businesses. A group of troubled residents and business leaders formed Redevelop Our Area Responsibly (ROAR) to urge residents and city officials to consider alternative options for the stadium. ROAR even paid for an independent acoustical study that concluded the "noise will be audible and sometimes annoying," says Regina Acosta Tobin, a real estate agent and member of the now-defunct group.

In December 2010, the area commission voted unanimously in favor of Arshot's zoning request and issued their recommendation to City Council, who approved the change in 2011 and eventually granted SPARC a 10-year tax abatement.

Still, Tobin wonders whether construction will ever begin.

"They were supposed to break ground last year," she says. "It's been my hope that it would not [begin]. It would be so nice to think that it would not happen."