A New Era at Hara

Is it curtains for Hara Arena or can the community come together to save the legendary entertainment complex. Read all about it in the latest edition of The Dayton Magazine as contributing writer Jim Bucher finds out.

It would seem like anyone who has called Dayton home in their lifetime has enjoyed and experienced an event at the Hara Arena Complex. But recently it has become quite complex to even keep the doors open. Karen Wampler, spokesperson for the Wampler family (owners of the Hara Complex), grants Dayton Magazine the first exclusive interview about Hara’s survival.

First, a little background.

In the 1940s, the land where Hara now sits was the Wampler family fruit orchard. In 1943, the Red Barn was built on Wolf Road as a fruit and vegetable stand for Wampler Farms. Harold Wampler, Sr., and his wife, Myrtle, enjoyed dancing so they built a hardwood floor on the Red Barn’s loft, which became the exclusive dance venue known as the Cedar Loft Club. Harold soon rented out the Red Barn as demand exceeded supply. He began a tradition that his sons and their sons would follow: build to meet a demand.

Right across Shiloh Springs Road, he started the Hara Complex with the Ballarena in 1956. Dancing was at the height of its popularity and more room was needed. Harold’s two sons, Harold, Jr., and Ralph, seized the opportunity and added the Silver Arena in 1959. Noticing that the Dayton area didn’t have a place to host the Shrine Circus, the Wamplers built the 5,500-seat Hara Arena in 1964, which ushered in an era of entertainment the Dayton area had never seen.

“The name Hara was taken from the first two letters of Harold and Ralph’s names,” says Marketing Director Karen Wampler and wife of Rue (Ralph Jr.) Wampler, Ralph’s son.

“We’re thankful their birth order wasn’t reversed. Otherwise, we’d be welcoming people to Raha Arena. Where else but Raha!” she jokes.

From those humble fancy-feet beginnings, Hara was the place to see and be seen. The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, The Who, Prince, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Kid Rock are just a few of the acts that played the arena. Dayton was suddenly a market where ice shows, car shows, circuses and monster truck challenges stopped. And who can forget the hottest ticket in town, Dayton Gems Hockey?

When I asked for stories about Hara on Facebook, the memories flowed like water on the arena floor before it freezes. Bill ‘Seg’ Dennison, a radio personality at Cincinnati’s 700 WLW, calls it “The Hockey Barn of Bedlam.” Even our very own editor, Natasha Baker, recalls her grandma as a popcorn lady wearing her trademark red-and-white striped coat. Mark says, “It’s funny, you had to dump your bottles before you entered a concert, but the pot flowed.” And Danny shares, “very few places leave me with a sense of awe like Hara.”

But times change and so do tastes for newer, bigger, better venues. Others saw the Wamplers’ vision — demand was greater than supply — and soon UD Arena, The Nutter Center and others popped up, and competition became fierce. The Wamplers welcomed it, but the odds were against them. “Few complexes such as Hara are private, family-owned venues, and while we struggle to meet our considerable tax load, we often compete against facilities that receive subsidies from taxes. It’s an uneven playing field, at best, complicated by Hara’s internal struggles,” says Karen.

After Harry and Ralph passed, the hand off wasn’t smooth, leaving one of the estates open to this day. “At a time when it was critical to adapt, we were tethered in place, hemorrhaging resources to legal fees and property taxes for land we couldn’t sell,” adds Karen.

Much has changed, but Hara hasn’t. Locked in place, Hara fell into disrepair. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Why don’t you do something with the place?’ Trust me, we‘ve noticed, we’re trying. Some serious sacrifices have been made to resolve Hara’s issues, to keep the struggle in house,” says Karen. “Turns out you can’t easily hide 165,000 square feet of struggle. There was a time when we were really hard on ourselves for not being able to better play the very difficult hand we were dealt. Today, we take pride that we’re still at the table.”

Hara recently partnered with VenuWorks, a respected facilities management company that operates almost 40 venues nationally and whose vice president is John Siehl, former president of the Nutter Center. “John, who began his career at Hara, introduced us to VenuWorks President Steve Peters. We shared our story: the good, the bad and the ugly. They told us, ‘Your baby’s ugly, but it’s got great bones and can grow out of it,’ ” says Wampler.

It seems those bones still have a lot of meat on them because a plan is on the table, including a debt restructuring plan and cash for necessary improvements. Investors and potential buyers will be aggressively pursued, which means the Wampler name might not be associated with its namesake, a revelation that brings a tear to Karen’s eyes. But the show must go on and in 2012 it did, bringing nearly $32 million in economic impact and filling the complex with 220 events.

“If a broken Hara can generate those numbers, what could a whole, restructured, renovated Hara do? We hope that in the coming year—Hara’s 50th anniversary —we can find out,” says Karen.

Don’t you think we should jump on the bandwagon here, or, in this case, the Hara Zamboni? Do we really need to lose that kind of coin in our depressed economy? I think not. Operation ‘New Era @ Hara’ has begun.

“While nothing is certain in the upcoming year, we enter it with a solid plan, some extraordinary allies, a realistic grasp of what needs to be done, a weary, but truly dedicated staff, a statue of St. Rita (Patron Saint of Impossible Causes) watching over us and 50 years of moments, memories and relationships from which to draw momentum,” says Karen.

We can only hope and pray that St.Rita loved to dance.

Cheers, Buch.

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