Fate of Major I-X Center Shows in Doubt

The Cleveland Auto Show attracted throngs of visitors in February of 2019 before the I-X Center’s closure.

Show Managers To Work With City on Alternative Ideas

By Terry Troy

While the timing of the announcement by the I-X Center Corp. that it would close Cleveland’s I-X Center at the end of the year was something of a shock to the business community of Northeast Ohio, it’s eventual closure was not exactly unexpected by managers of majors Shows, including the forward-thinking management of Cleveland Auto Show.

Last week, after more than 35 years of operation, the I-X Center Corp., which operates the facility, announced that it was closing its doors, a victim of the Coronavirus pandemic and decreased conventions and meetings business.

David Gilber, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland

“The I-X Center was an important part of Cleveland’s events, meetings and conventions landscape, and it’s disappointing to hear that it is closing permanently,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, the organization responsible for attracting conventions and tourism business to the city. “The closing illustrates the devastating economic effect of COVID-19 on the events, conventions and tourism industries for organizations, their employees and the ancillary businesses that count on places like the I-X Center to drive patrons to their establishments.”

The building has been idle since March, when the state barred mass gatherings and most events to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The massive 2.2 million exhibition hall is owned by the city of Cleveland but leases it to the I-X Center Corp., an affiliate of the Park Corp. business conglomerate.

The site had played host to a number of major Shows and attractions, such as Cleveland’s I-X Piston Powered Auto-Rama, the I-X Indoor Amusement Park, the Great Big Home and Garden Show, the RV Show, the Boat Show and the Cleveland Auto Show, the latter perhaps the largest, which is produced by the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association (GCADA).

“Mr. Park [owner of the I-X Corp.] did a very good job for a number of years and I am sure this was a very difficult decision for him,” says Louis A. Vitantonio, president of the GCADA. “But when you have no revenue coming in, and you still have expenses, well that just puts everything into perspective.

Louis A. Vitantonio, president of the GCADA

“The city needs to come up with a plan. We certainly have a number of ideas that would make sense for the City of Cleveland, such as turning the I-X Center into a mixed use facility where a portion of the building is used as a distribution center and the other portion is used as an exhibit hall. That way you could generate income 24/7, 365 days a year, instead of just a few dates when Shows are open.”

Even without the closure, Vitantonio admits that the GCADA faced some obvious challenges putting on an Auto Show in 2021. And a Show could still happen, if the City were to find another operator.

“So there is still an outside shot that a Show could take place at the I-X Center. I’m not sure it could take place anywhere else,” Vitantonio says. “But we would still have the challenge of doing a ‘masked gathering.’

“Our position is that we are a retail establishment, which has different rules according to the governor—that is the direction we are going. We have the ability to create a show, using cleaning solutions on frequently touched surfaces, creating aisles that go in one direction, and requiring that masks be used—but not having a facility that is open in 2021 certainly adds a new wrinkle.”

So it really comes down to finding a replacement operator for the I-X facility.

In the weeks ahead, the GCADA, as well as other major shows, will be working with the Mayor’s Office and the Office of Economic Development to come up with alternatives, Vitantonio says.

While an Auto Show is not certain for 2021, the GCADA will keep trying and has not ruled out the possibility.

The stakes for the local retail automotive industry are just too high. The Cleveland Auto Show has historically been the springboard for the retail automotive selling season across Northern Ohio—which is also a primary driver of the entire economy across the region

“There is simply a huge economic value to Northern Ohio,” Vitantonio adds, when asked about the overall economic impact. “We will work on a way to solve this, or we will find a new location, and we’ll find a way to put together a Show moving forward.”