Hara Arena & Exhibition Center, Dayton, Ohio

Hara Arena & Exhibition Center, Dayton, Ohio (Hara Arena) will permanently close its doors Aug. 27 with a comic book & toy show and auction after a 56 year run. It will take with it roughly $36 million in economic impact on the area.

One of the few large venues left in the USA that is still family-owned, Hara Arena has seen  hundreds of big acts, sporting events, trade shows and small community events. Based on Facebook posts and letters sent to the arena after the news that it's being shut down got out, the venerable venue will be sorely missed by the hundreds of thousands of guests who passed through its doors over the past six decades.

“It's very sad, and I'd say we were in shock, but this has been a long time in the making so shock would not be the correct word,” said Karen Wampler, Hara Arena marketing director and part of the ownership family. “We've been trying to find a solution to the legal and monetary mess for many, many years but in the end, we couldn't overcome them. It's sad and heartbreaking.”

The 165,000 sq.-ft., 5,600-seat venue, opened its doors in 1956 as Ball Arena, which was a much smaller venue than the current Hara Arena. Its founders were the Wampler brothers — Harold and Ralph — who combined their first names to come up with the iconic name “Hara.”

“The brothers were Shriners, and there was nowhere for the Shrine Circus,” explained Wampler. “So the brothers said, 'let's fix that.'” In 1964 they opened a bigger venue next to Ball Arena, which evolved into the complex now known as Hara Arena.

The arena's problems started when Harold Wampler passed away in 1996. There were tax issues and, as co-owner of the venue, the fate of Hara Arena rested on a positive and peaceful settlement of Wampler's estate with the IRS. That was not to be, and a 20-year legal battle ensued between Wampler's surviving relatives and the IRS. “The ongoing legal issues drained us of the resources we needed to modernize and compete with newer venues that sprung up,” said Wampler.

“There's a reason why most of the current venues are owned by municipalities and universities. They enjoy tax abatements and resources  that just aren't available to privately-owned entities,” lamented Wampler. “We were independent and entangled in this legal battle for the last 20 years, so many things just couldn't be done that might have saved the arena.”

Even with the shadow hanging over the arena, it continued to operate for 12 years before the IRS came knocking. “In 2008, the IRS started placing liens on the property,” said Wampler. “It affected Hara's ability to do anything that would save us. Grants and  loans were unobtainable. Naming rights sponsorships were impossible to work out. Tax credits were not available. So many of the avenues we would have taken were blocked. Renovations, restructuring, nothing was going to go forward with the noose around our neck. Every year we thought, 'this will be the year that it all gets resolved,' but every year we were wrong.”

Wampler said that anytime she gets a platform to talk she has this piece of advice: “If you have not made arrangements through wills and other legal instruments to take care of what matters to you, please use us as a cautionary tale. Drop what you are doing and do it now.”

Wampler is still reeling from the outcome, “I couldn't imagine in my worst nightmare that this could all be happening from something that started in 1996.”

Wampler said that her take-away is the “sweet emotional impact that the arena had on the local community. When we had our 50th anniversary and asked our patrons to send in their memories of the place, I fully expected them to center around the larger-than-life events like The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, the circuses and wrestling meets, but what came back, more often than not, were sweet personal memories. First dance; first kiss; first concert. Men would tell us about coming to a car show with their grandfather; ladies told us about going with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers to our yearly Black Friday National Gift Show. I was surprised on  how many of the memories centered on these lovely little moments.”

Wampler said, since the announcement that the doors were shutting, she's been overwhelmed by the response from the local community. “I underestimated the emotional impact of the announcement,” said Wampler. “I kept getting stopped by people with tears in their eyes. Oddly, I was comforting others. I had to stop going out for a few days and hid away.”

Wampler came to Hara Arena out of college as a marketing assistant. She met her future husband, Ralph (Rue) Wampler Jr. on the job. Her most memorable event was when Ringling Bros. Circus came to Hara Arena in the early 2000s.

“It was the last stop on the tour for the circus,” said Wampler. “So it was a bittersweet time for the circus team who had been together for all those months touring and were going to part after our run. Because of a touring glitch they came a week early. They set up their camp behind the arena, and we got to spend that week getting to know them. It just happened to be Thanksgiving, and we made them Thanksgiving dinner and shared it with them. Then they volunteered to be part of our Black Friday event. It morphed into something way beyond just a rental and between them separating, and us seeing them go, it was the most tearful departure of an event I have ever witnessed, and the most special thing that I can recall here.”

John Siehl, VenuWorks VP and chief operating officer, has been working with Hara Arena for four years trying to facilitate a sale to keep them from closing.  He also worked at Hara Arena from 1964-1990.

“They just can't make a go,” said Siehl. “The family has been taking money out of their pockets, and that's not an expeditious way to run a facility. We've been working with the family for four years trying to find a buyer, but time has run out. It's slated to be auctioned, but it needs major repairs to bring it up to code, and someone buying it may not be a viable option. No one knows what will happen if it doesn't sell.”

Siehl has many memories of his time at Hara Arena. “Virtually anybody who is anybody played there,” said Siehl. “It was the home of rock and roll in the Midwest.

There were years we put on 35 to 40 concerts a year. Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult, Tina Turner, the list of name acts that haven't played there you can count on one hand.”

“The Rolling Stones did their first-ever U.S. date at Hara Arena and only 648 people showed up,” recalled Siehl. Other memorable events include when Black Sabbath was playing and the stage collapsed. “Luckily no one was hurt,” remembered Siehl. Another time there was a riot that broke out. “We had Grand Funk Railroad one night and it was sold out. Thousands of fans who didn't get a ticket were outside in the heat, and they started breaking the windows and the glass doors. The place was completely trashed.”

Siehl's most memorable event also revolved around Ringling Brothers Circus. The circus was in the building for a five-day run,” Siehl recalled. “It was late October, early 1970's, and weather can do about anything in Ohio at that time of year. We had their travel trailers set up in a double row in the rear parking lot with the electric, water and sewer lines crossing the lane in between the rows of trailers to the source of the services at the building.” 

An early snowstorm overnight set the stage for comedic relief very early the next morning as an energetic young worker hopped in the arena's snow plow to start to clean the parking lot.

“The worker decided to do the performers a favor and plow in between the rows of trailers, not remembering that the utility lines crossed the pathway. The plow went down, the snow flew off of the pavement, which caused the electrical lines, water lines and sewer lines to get severed. This happened just as the operations supervisor came around the corner to witness the flailing water, sewer and electric lines, and performers running out of their trailers, still dressed for bed, to stop the carnage. After a few rants, there was much laughter, and the next day was spent repairing the damage between performances.”

Said Siehl with a sigh, “It's very sad to see it go away. There were many, many years of laughter and hard work at Hara. I'll miss the place.”

Interviewed for this story: Karen Wampler, (937) 278-4776; John Siehl, (937) 823-3969