The Rise and Fall of Richfield Coliseum: Land&People

For 25 years, the hulking shape of the Richfield Coliseum hunkered incongruously above the cornfields of northeast Ohio, visible for miles above the plunging ravines, hidden streams, and dense, leaf-carpeted forests of the Cuyahoga River Valley. Built in the mid-1970s midway between Cleveland and Akron, the 20,000-seat arena rose from an elevated plain above the riverside trails and meadows of the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). On nights when the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team played at home, the population of rural Richfield would swell ten times as cars poured from two nearby interstate highways into oceanic parking lots set among family farms.

If a basketball stadium set amid corn rows seemed incongruous, it wasn't until the Cavaliers played their last game there in 1994 that Ohioans began to worry. With urban sprawl on the march across much of the region, it seemed likely that a shopping mall or office park might soon occupy this prominent site at the edge of the region's premier national park.

By 1998, 60 suitors had approached Coliseum owners George and Gordon Gund about buying the 327-acre property for development. A National Park Service study estimated that a shopping center on the Coliseum land would bring 15,000 cars each day to clog the park's scenic, two-lane byways. "The Coliseum could have easily become a mega-outlet shopping mall drawing millions of shoppers over park roadways, twelve hours a day, seven days a week," says John Debo, superintendent of the CVNP.

The fate of the abandoned property was but the latest act in a 30-year-old drama. In the 1960s, as suburban development seemed poised to spread for 40 miles between Akron and Cleveland, a group of farsighted civic leaders launched a plan to protect the bucolic Cuyahoga Valley, in the heart of the rapidly developing region. "At that time there were two competing visions for the Cuyahoga Valley," says Chris Knopf, director of the Ohio Field Office of the Trust for Public Land. "In one, the valley was paved over and developed. In the other, the open space was preserved, urban sprawl contained, and a park created for future generations."

Former Congressman John Seiberling, who had grown up in the Cuyahoga Valley, played a key role in the park's creation. It was as an activist that Seiberling first took his idea for a national park in the valley to local park commissioners, then to the state of Ohio, and finally all the way to Congress, where a bill to create the park was the first legislation he wrote after his election in 1971.

"The public support was overwhelming," Seiberling recalls. After passing the House, the bill won approval in the Senate in only three days. At first it was feared that President Gerald Ford would veto the bill, but local support was just too strong. "The list of people who had written to support the park included some very important public figures–politicians, major businesses, organizations, and individuals," Seiberling says. "Ford looked at that list and said, 'If I don't sign this bill, my name will be mud in Ohio.'"

After the park had been approved but before acquisition funds could be appropriated, TPL began optioning properties to take them off the market, securing them for federal ownership. Over the next decades, TPL completed 17 acquisitions for the CVNP–from single lots to small farms to historic inns and businesses along the Ohio & Erie Canal, a National Historic Corridor that parallels the river. The CVNP today is among the most popular recreational destinations in the Midwest, within an hour's drive of four million people. One prime attraction is the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which travels through forests and skirts the crooked Cuyahoga River, tracing the antique stonework of the canal that spurred the region's economic development. The trail attracts hikers, bikers, walkers, joggers, autumn leaf-peepers, and cross-country skiers from across northern Ohio and beyond. Visitors also enjoy golf, horseback riding, canoeing, concerts at the private Blossom Music Center, exhibits at one of three visitor centers, and excursions on the 20-mile Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway, a journey that carries travelers through the visual feast of the Cuyahoga Valley.

Even as it protected a premier open space, the park proved an attraction to development as well. This has left citizens struggling to find ways to encourage appropriate growth on the park's boundaries. "We have still had a challenge preserving open space," says Peggy Bobel, director of the Cuyahoga Valley Association, which supports preservation of the valley. "Housing developments were springing up on the edge of the CVNP as fast as you could say it. But the park held development at bay."

Elsewhere across northeast Ohio, sprawl has claimed acre after acre of farms and forests, as residents have deserted Cleveland and the inner ring of older suburbs for boomtowns built on the urban fringe. In the next ten years, developed land in the region will have expanded more than 30 percent since 1980, even as the population has fallen slightly. The pattern has been particularly tough on the old steel city of Cleveland, where population plummeted by nearly half–from 914,808 to 505,016–between 1950 and 1990. At the same time, skyrocketing land values and taxes on the urban fringe have pressured farmers off the land. Since the 1950s, Ohio has lost almost 30 percent of its farmland and is currently losing an average of 77 acres of farmland per day.

"Urban sprawl has created a regional problem," says Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cleveland, whose "Church in the City" campaign to combat urban sprawl has gained national attention. "Not only did Cleveland suffer, but the entire region did. When the urban core declines, the whole region suffers economically."

More recently have come the first signs that the pattern has begun to turn around. As part of a general revival, two new sports venues have been built downtown. The Gund Arena, where the Cavaliers now play, and Jacobs Field, home of the Cleveland Indians, have become models for other cities trying to revive their downtowns. New housing also is being built throughout the city. Cleveland–once scorned as the "mistake on the lake"–has begun to call itself the "Comeback City."

The new sporting arenas also signaled the death knell for the Richfield Coliseum, and while many northeast Ohio residents hailed the infusion of wealth back into downtown, they worried that one symbol of sprawl might be replaced with another. That this did not happen is due in part to the generosity of the Gund family, who, despite better offers from developers, this year sold the Coliseum and its 327-acre site to the Trust for Public Land for transfer to the National Park Service.

"The Cuyahoga Valley is an important resource for northeast Ohio," says John Graham, president of Gund Business Enterprises and a Gund family spokesman. "Commercial use of the Coliseum site would have hurt the park."

In March the first wrecking ball crashed through the walls of the Richfield Coliseum. "The people won," says Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, who was instrumental in securing funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for the land's purchase. Senator Mike DeWine and Congressman Tom Sawyer also provided support for the acquisition.

The dedication of one sprawl-threatened property to parkland does not spell the end of sprawl development trends in northeast Ohio, but it is a powerful symbol in a region that is beginning to value its disappearing farms and forests. In November 1998, voters in both Summit County (home of the Coliseum), and in neighboring Medina County passed local funding measures to acquire open space. "Here, as elsewhere in the nation, residents are realizing that while growth can be good, the wrong kind of growth can be destructive to city and countryside alike," says Ernest Cook, who heads TPL's Public Finance Program.

It is for this reason that TPL recently launched its nationwide Greenprint for Growth campaign to help communities protect land threatened by sprawl. Through public finance initiatives such as bond measures, TPL is helping communities raise capital for land protection, then working with them to acquire lands they wish to preserve from development.

"Smart growth is at the center of what TPL is trying to do," says Al Raymond of TPL's Midwest Office. "On the one hand, we're working on the urban fringe, trying to capture land before it's lost. On the other hand, land conservation can be a tool for improving the livability of cities and suburbs–a tool for urban renewal."

By next year, the scars of the bulldozers will have begun to fade from the land where Richfield Coliseum once stood. Already nature is reclaiming the land. Red-tailed hawks soar overhead and Canada geese graze where asphalt parking lots once covered the earth. Five years from now a young forest will have sprouted here, and as the trees grow they will be visible for miles across the Cuyahoga Valley.

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and teacher who often escapes Cleveland's sprawling suburbs in the leafy, bucolic retreat of the Cuyahoga Valley.