ONTARIO — The way Ontario Youth Sports Director Kenn Spencer sees it, Marshall Park isn’t just the town’s crown jewel. The rolling 122-acre expanse nestled between Rock Road and Shelby-Ontario Road is an agent of economic change.

Marshall Park is in the midst of a multi-phase facelift. This year’s upgrades included the installation of artificial surface and state-of-the-art lighting at the four-field baseball and softball complex located on Dunlap Drive. Construction of a playground and splash pad at the corner of Milligan Road and Cal Miller Lane is in the works, too.

For Spencer, a Temple Christian graduate who returned to Ontario in 1998 after living in Arkansas, the park improvement project is perhaps the most important part of the story of Ontario’s rebirth.

That story began in first decade of the new millennia.

“We had a whole vision for this park in 2006 or 2007, when the General Motors plant was still in town,” Spencer said. “Then the economy changed (during the Great Recession in 2008) and, not long after, GM closed (in 2010). It was a punch in the gut to our entire community.

“We kind of went into a survival mode and recreation became an afterthought.”

Like a lot of towns across Ohio and the country, Ontario suffered after GM’s departure. That the stamping plant’s closing coincided with the recession only exacerbated the situation.

“We went through that five or six years when we were trying to figure out how to survive this,” Spencer said. “How can we make the town attractive to other businesses and not become a ghost town like a lot of the places GM pulled out of?”

Marshall Park, it turned out, was the answer.

“We don’t really have a downtown. If you ask 10 people where downtown Ontario is, you’ll get 10 different answers,” Spencer said. “What we did have was this amazing 122-acre park.

“We sat down with council and the youth sports board and some community members and asked what do we want the focal point of our town to be? This is what we decided, that when you think of Ontario you think of Marshall Park.”

The problem was Marshall Park was like many other community parks across north central Ohio.

“We had to figure out how to execute a plan to make Marshall Park the focal point,” Spencer said. “How do we distinguish ourselves to make Ontario attractive to families while giving the people who already live in the community something to be proud of?

“About three years ago, our youth sports board went to council and said, ‘If you allow us to put down turf, we can attract enough out-of-town teams that we can have a real economic impact in the community.”

Ontario’s city council went all-in.

“As we started looking at turf, we were saying, ‘This is going to be our downtown, so what else can we do?’ We started crunching the numbers and some of the people on council said, ‘If we want to change the way people view our park, then let’s jump in with both feet.’ ”

Ontario Mayor Randy Hutchinson was among those to make the leap.

“Council decided to make a large investment in our parks to bring more people to town and provide great facilities for our citizens,” Hutchinson said. “It already is paying off with the amount of people it is bringing to town to help our businesses and restaurants and hotels.

“It’s going to bring a lot of commerce to the entire county.”

The new turf fields and lights immediately drew the attention of the ever-growing travel baseball and softball industry. It wasn’t long before tournament staging companies like Midwest Tournament Factory began to inquire about the park’s availability.

“As we added the turf and lights, the phone started ringing. People wanted to host tournaments here,” Spencer said. “I got a call recently from somebody who wanted to host a Division I college softball showcase here. Those are the types of events we are attracting.

“Right now, we are hosting tournaments pretty much every weekend. We feel like our economic impact in the community is somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000 per weekend, with hotel stays and restaurant visits and people buying gas at our gas stations. If you do the math, we think our economic impact in our first year of having the turf fields will be over $1 million. That doesn’t mean Ontario Youth Sports is putting $1 million in the bank. What it means is people are going to our stores and restaurants and staying at our hotels.”

While the income from tournaments at Marshall Park is driving the economy, Ontario officials wanted to make sure the park is, first and foremost, a community park.

“Our first priority is to the kids in Ontario. The park is open to the public,” Spencer said. “If you live in Ontario and want to throw your son batting practice, we’ve got a cage here. If you are part of the community and want to bring your athlete to the park, go ahead and bring them out.”

With a forward-looking group of community leaders, Marshall Park will continue to be the centerpiece of a town that reinvented itself during the past decade.

“We’re thinking for the future,” Hutchinson said. “These are capital projects that will be here for years to come and continue to bring people into town.”

Marshall Park has helped the once-struggling town change its narrative.

“Go to another town where a GM plant has closed. Those towns either no longer exist or are just hanging on because businesses don’t want to be there any more. It’s not that way here,” Spencer said. “People counted us out in 2007 and 2008.

“GM is starting to be a distant memory because our council, our city and our youth sports group have changed the conversation.”

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