Want to know what’s in store for Mercyhurst’s North East campus? Then just imagine a sports complex that rivals the size of Erie Bank Sports Park’s main building.
And that’s just to start.
Mercyhurst University has yet to finalize a sale of its North East campus — which includes the former St. Mary’s Seminary — to a Baltimore-based development firm.
But new details reveal how the prospective buyer, Blue Ocean Investments, which owns the S.P.I.R.E. Institute in Geneva, Ohio, would use the property.
Multi-purpose sports center?
As part of an estimated $13 million investment, the company would construct a 70,000 square-foot multi-purpose sports center on the Mercyhurst North East campus.
The borough of North East has applied for a $6.5 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to cover half the cost of the project, according to state records.
“The idea is that when they come into town and they take possession in December of this year, they’re looking to put about a $13 million investment into that campus,” North East Borough Manager Pat Gehrlein said. “We made an application on their behalf for half of the funds. We figured that if we’re able to stretch their dollars a little bit further, we can allow them to do phase two, which is scheduled to be about a $20 million investment.”
Gehrlein cautioned that the size of the sports complex, as well as the estimated cost of the projects, could change. It is not known what a second phase would entail.
Paired with an existing field house on the campus, which would also be renovated with the grant money, the new complex would have slightly more square footage than Erie Bank Sports Park, formerly known as Family First, on Oliver Road in Summit Township.
Put another way, the facility would be about a third of the size of Erie Insurance Arena, which following recent renovations is now 218,000 square feet, or nearly nine times the size of the North East Middle School gymnasium.
Gehrlein noted that there is ample room for such a facility on the 84-acre campus. A single-story, 70,000 square-foot building would occupy about 1.7 acres of land.
“We just wanted to encourage the new growth that they’re putting forward out there,” Gehrlein said. “We realize it’s going to be a massive investment. It’s speculated to encompass the improvements to the existing field house and natatorium, the expansion of a multipurpose recreational court system. It will be volleyball courts, basketball courts, a full fitness center training facility, the whole deal.”
The grant would also pay for the renovation of an off-campus, 11,400-square-foot natatorium on North Lake Street that Mercyhurst University bought from the North East School District in 2000.
The renovation work is estimated to cost more than $3.3 million, while the construction of the new sports complex would exceed $9.6 million. The sports complex would include a fitness center that would be accessible to the North East community, according to the application obtained by the Erie Times-News.
Blue Ocean’s plans aren’t limited to sports either. It plans to offer a culinary school and a performing arts curriculum.
In addition to the athletic complexes, Blue Ocean intends to renovate some of the older buildings on the property and add a “state-of-the-art theatre, sound studio, and recording studio,” according to the application.
Gehrlein hopes to have an answer on the borough’s grant application by the end of August.
Mercyhurst University spokeswoman Debbie Morton said there has not been any change in the status of the Mercyhurst North East property.
Blue Ocean President and CEO Jonathan Ehrenfeld formed the company in 2004. Its real estate portfolio includes multifamily, office, retail, industrial, hospitality, and self-storage properties.
Ehrenfeld declined to comment on the company’s plans for North East.
A timeline of the project in the application says that ground would be broken in December when the sale is expected to close. Bids for renovation and new construction would be advertised in February and awarded in March. Construction would begin in June and be completed by December 2023. Spire North East would launch its programming in September 2022.
What is S.P.I.R.E., and what’s next?
In 2018 Blue Ocean established affiliate Axxella, which months later, in December 2019, purchased the land and buildings at S.P.I.R.E. Institute in Ashtabula County, Ohio for $7.35 million. The sales price did not include what Axxella paid for personal property, like furniture, fixtures and equipment, according to Crain’s Cleveland Business.
S.P.I.R.E., which stands for sports, philanthropy, innovation, rehabilitation and education, boasts of having 750,000 square feet under roof at its 300-acre campus in Geneva. However, property acquisitions in recent years put its footprint at over 500 acres, according to Crain’s.
It features a college preparatory academy for high school student-athletes, as well as a postgraduate academy.
It also has camp, club, clinic and league programs in multiple sports, according to its website, and hosts Olympic trials and world championship qualifying events, and events held by the NCAA and some of its major sports conferences, including the Big 10, Big East and Atlantic 10.
Charlotte Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball, who was selected third overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, played his senior season at S.P.I.R.E. Twelve-time Olympic medal-winning swimmer Ryan Lochte serves as one of S.P.I.R.E.’s ambassadors.
In 2019, Blue Ocean announced plans to open “S.P.I.R.E. East” inside a former aviation station in the Baltimore area.
From 2019:Mercyhurst to close North East campus
Mercyhurst University officials in August 2019 announced they would move the programs at the North East campus to Erie by the summer of 2021 to increase enrollment at the university’s main campus, reduce operating costs and strengthen two-year academic programs now offered in North East.
The North East campus had 150 employees in late 2019 and a fall enrollment of about 550 students.
In May 2020, Mercyhurst opted to move up its consolidation by one year. It moved all associate degree programs to its main campus in Erie last fall and disbanded its sports teams. Only Mercyhurst’s nursing, biology, allied health, and police academy programs remained in North East for the 2020-21 academic year.
The Erie Times-News reported in April that Mercyhurst had been in negotiations for months with suitor Blue Ocean Investments.
Gehrlein said the project has huge implications for the region. He encourages community members to call their state lawmakers to ask them to support the borough’s RACP application.
“It is such a fantastic project,” he said. “I only see good coming out of it. It’s one of these projects that you can dump money into a road. You can dump money into this or that. But this thing is going to be on the tax rolls. This is going to benefit community members. This is going to benefit the entire region. It’ll be a draw. This will be the Chautauqua Institute of this area.”