Napoli, Hens have shepherded big changes Downtown over decadeWritten by Joel Sensenig | Managing Editor | email@example.com
It’s hard for Joe Napoli to stick to sports when discussing the past 10 years.
As general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens, Toledo Free Press placed Napoli atop its list of the “25 most influential people in Toledo sports” in 2005. He’s arguably more influential now, serving as president and general manager for both the Hens and Toledo Walleye.
By spearheading the Mud Hens’ move Downtown prior to the 2002 season, he’s also had a direct impact on revitalizing the center of the city.
“Nope, not much going on,” Napoli joked about the past decade from the fifth-floor executive office space at Fifth Third Field.
Looking out the window overlooking the southeast corner of the ballpark, Napoli said the stadium has exceeded all expectations he had when the relocation process from Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee began at the turn of the century.
“I think we had established some pretty high standards, but it’s really gone beyond that,” he said. “It’s almost fairy tale-like when you really think about what we hoped would happen and what has happened — it’s even better. You take a look at the Warehouse District: $12 million in annual payroll, up from virtually nothing. Seventy new businesses of all varieties. … Those are the things that we hoped would happen, and that they have happened is very gratifying.”
Napoli realizes the Mud Hens and Walleye are staples in the community, and he doesn’t plan on letting that change.
“Our mission is to be affordable, family-oriented and deliver what we internally call a fanatical experience,” he said. “So as long as we keep delivering on the mission and treat all of our fans like they’re our guests, I think we’ll always be one of those institutions or attractions in town that people point to with pride. But we don’t ever rest on that, because it’s easy to take your fans for granted, and we’ve seen other organizations do that. Once you do that, it’s just going to be a recipe for disaster.
“We always try to reinvent or refresh the experience,” he said.
The Hensville project is one way Napoli is attempting to do just that.
The effort to rehabilitate three Warehouse District buildings into dining, retail and office space recently received nearly $4 million in Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits from the Ohio Development Services Agency. The project has an estimated cost of $18.8 million.
Hensville is part of the Mud Hens’ commitment to refreshing the game experience for fans, Napoli said.
“It’s going to remind people of Wrigleyville,” he said. “There will be some dining options, there will be some shopping options, there will be rooftop decks, just like across the street at Wrigley [Field]. We’re also adding a park just beyond right field wall, with an acre of open space, for concerts, festivals and theater in the park — all of these things that encourage social interaction.
“The goal is to encourage even more people to come Downtown,” Napoli said. “Between the two franchises, we bring about 750,000 people a year Downtown. We want to raise that to between 850,000 and 900,000 with Hensville.”
A decade ago, Napoli began to see his dream of revitalizing Downtown through the Mud Hens come to fruition.
“We really positioned the team and the location of Fifth Third Field for success,” he said. “We really felt like we had the right location. We thought that being part of the Warehouse District was important. Hindsight being 20/20, when you look at other communities that have had success at the major league or the minor league level, it’s because the adjacent properties and real estate were the type that could be renovated and rehabbed successfully.
“So when you look at the Warehouse District and even the Business District in Downtown, it’s ripe for redevelopment. We have the good structure — we just needed a catalytic event.”
The Mud Hens were that event.
Looking to the future, Napoli sees Downtown continuing to grow. A couple of blocks to the north of Fifth Third Field, development around Huntington Center has been slower than anticipated. He blames that on bad timing.
“The only thing Huntington Center suffered from originally was bad timing, going into the recession,” he said. “But with ProMedica coming in two blocks away, I think we’re going to see a lot of things happen around that building that we thought would have happened by now.”
With these projects, along with Downtown riverfront property to become the next Toledo Metropark, investment in the area is approaching $200 million.
“When we fast-forward 10 more years, and we look back, I think we’ll be talking about how ProMedica’s move to Downtown was the tipping point,” Napoli said. “The last 10 years have been wonderful. I think the next 10 years are going to be even better.”
As for his placement on that Toledo Free Press Top 25 list?
Napoli takes the humble approach, laughing when he thinks back on the designation. Others on the list included Tom Amstutz, Jimmy Jackson, Stan Joplin, Jamie Farr, Christine Brennan and Bruce Gradkowski.
“It’s flattering, but when you go through that list, there are a whole bunch of men and women on that list that could be No. 1,” he said.
“I have always appreciated the fact that they picked me to top the list, but I never really thought that it was deserved, because in order to be successful, you have to have so many people involved that do things very well. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been surrounded by good people. Not only internally, but everyone that’s supported the team, from local government to sponsors and season ticket holders and the like.”
It seems clear the New York native has no plans to leave Toledo any time soon. He smiles as he reflects on why he enjoys living here.
“When you think about living an active life, you can do that in Toledo,” he said. “What I mean by that is you can go to work, and love your job and enjoy your time at work. You can be home in 10-15 minutes and participate in the lives of your family [members]. When you look at recreation, you’ve got a river, a lake, a parks system that’s amazing, all the attractions. And you have that all wrapped up in a midsized community full of very nice people.”