I-X Center To Close After 35 Years As COVID-19 Curtails Events Industry

Built during World War II for U.S. wartime manufacturing, the giant warehouse near Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport took on a new life as the I-X Center in 1985.
Built during World War II for U.S. wartime manufacturing, the giant warehouse near Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport took on a new life as the I-X Center in 1985. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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The I-X Center is shutting its doors after decades hosting many of Cleveland’s biggest events, its managing company announced Wednesday afternoon. 

For 35 years, the massive events center brought Northeast Ohioans together for boat shows and trade conventions, garden expositions and the indoor amusement park with its iconic Ferris wheel and unforgettable TV jingle.

But it didn’t survive the coronavirus pandemic that brought gatherings like those to a halt nationwide. This spring, the company furloughed 76 full- or part-time employees and 100 seasonal workers.

“The global pandemic has decimated the event industry as well as many other businesses and has ultimately led to this decision,” Marketing Director Claire Anter wrote in a press release. “The I-X Center would like to thank all its customers, employees, and attendees who helped make the I-X Center a success over the past 35 years.”

The announcement throws into uncertainty the future of the building, which is owned by the City of Cleveland and abuts Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport. Mayor Frank Jackson’s office is reviewing its options for a new use for the property, according to a statement released Wednesday evening.

“The City of Cleveland thanks Ray Park for his many years managing the I-X Center,” the statement reads, referring to Park Corporation founder Raymond Park. “The I-X Center has been visited by many who have enjoyed the consumer shows and the exposition events. The City recognizes the challenge operating an exposition facility in an industry that has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

M-41 tanks roll off the assembly line at the Cleveland Tank Plant in this 1960 photo. [Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University]

Park Corp. bought the 2.2 million-square-foot Brook Park building – built in World War II to manufacture bombers and later tanks – in 1977, spending around $30 million on the purchase and renovation.  

The company opened the facility as the International Exposition Center in 1985, debuting with the International Capital Goods Trade Fair that October.

Dwarfing Cleveland’s downtown convention center at the time, the I-X Center quickly became a hub for trade shows. The Mid-America Boat Show and Cleveland Auto Show soon decamped from Downtown to take up residence in the giant exposition center beside the Cleveland airport.  

After hosting a few amusement ride events, the center erected a $1.5 million Ferris wheel in 1991. The ride peeked just above the building’s roof, offering gondola riders a skylight view of Cleveland.

The wheel became the centerpiece of the annual I-X Indoor Amusement Park, and the park’s jingle made itself a fixture in local TV ads.

Cleveland bought the I-X Center for $66.5 million from Park Corp. in 1999, with plans to demolish the building one day to make room for a Hopkins runway expansion. Brook Park, where the center was located, tried to seize it through eminent domain. 

The moves escalated a long-running feud between Cleveland and Brook Park, pitting the two cities’ headstrong mayors at the time – Mike White and Tom Coyne – against one another in a fight the Plain Dealer dubbed the “Gunfight at I-X Corral.”

After years of wrangling and some $11 million in legal bills, White and Coyne sealed a truce with a hug in 2001. Cleveland claimed the I-X Center and ceded NASA Glenn Research Center to Brook Park in a land-swap and tax-sharing deal.

Rally-goers await President Donald Trump at a campaign event in November 2018 at the I-X Center. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

The I-X Center has been home to many major annual events, such as the Cleveland Boat Show and the Great Big Home + Garden Show. With ample room for crowds, it has also hosted several Republican political rallies with national candidates, drawing Mitt Romney in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 and 2018.

COVID-19 left a dent in the center’s calendar this year, leading to the cancellation of the spring’s I-X Indoor Amusement Park.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the amusement park’s website still invited fans to return next year: Splashed across the page were the words “See you in 2021.”

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