The mystery has ended, months of uncertainty gone. That’s been the tale of the 2023 Cleveland Boat Show: not if or when it would be held, but where. The answer is the I-X Center, where it’s been staged since 1986, albeit with changes coming.
According to an announcement from the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, the show’s return to I-X will require a total redesign since it first was staged there 37 years ago. That’s because the I-X closed in March 2020 as Covid triggered a nationwide ban on mass gatherings. It remained shuttered for more than 18 months, when the property was finally purchased by Industrial Realty Group, an investment organization known for warehousing and distribution facilities.
The primary use for most of the 2.5 million-square-foot building will now be for businesses that will enjoy its location at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, where planes can literally taxi up to the center’s back door. And it’s been confirmed that a dedicated area will be set aside to host shows that are open to the public.
“We are excited IRG has recognized the contributions to the community of annual public shows like ours,” says LEMTA president Michelle Burke. “Dedicating a part of the building to continuing the most popular events enjoyed by thousands of exhibitors and attendees from throughout Ohio is great news for all.”
Burke says the newly allotted area will include sufficient exhibit space to continue to stage Ohio’s largest annual boat and fishing show. However, the location and configuration of the new show area will require a new exhibit space plan and show entrances, relocation of food services and much more.
“One thing’s for sure,” Burke says, “we get to throw out all the old. We will create a truly new show we can boast our visitors have never seen before.”
Looking back, the history of the I-X Center and the boat show is fascinating. The massive building dates to 1942, when it was known as the Cleveland Bomber Plant. Owned by the Department of Defense, it was operated by General Motors as Aircraft Plant No. 2, where B-29 bombers rolled out of 300-foot-wide hangar doors.
By the 1950s, as the Korean War kept expanding, GM selected the Bomber Plant as the site to manufacture Army tanks, so it became known to locals as the Tank Plant. GM produced the Walker Bulldog until 1955. When the GM contract ended in 1972, the Department of Defense announced its intention to sell the plant.
In 1977, the Park Corp. of Charleston, W.Va., under the leadership of Ray Park, bought the dormant facility with the idea of creating an international trade mart. His plan only partially materialized, so after some major remodeling of part of the building, in 1986 it opened as the International Exposition Center, or the I-X Center.
While local public shows (boat, RV, home, sports) had been produced in the downtown Cleveland Convention Center for decades, LEMTA surprised everyone by announcing it had opted to move the boat show to the new I-X Center, where it could be expanded. It was the first show to leave the downtown facility for the Tank Plant, and no one knew what would happen.
“The rest is history,” Burke says. “The initial public response was overwhelming. In the next couple of years, virtually all the other public shows were headed to the I-X. Ray Park’s vision to bring the building back to life as a place for large expositions was a big winner for everyone.
“And as we look ahead to growing concerns about the retail boat market going forward,” she adds, “we see the need to again bring dealers and the boaters together, face-to-face, in the exciting atmosphere of a redesigned show.”
The Cleveland Boat Show has reigned as Ohio’s oldest and largest winter boating event since its inception in 1957. When the show opens for its Jan. 12-15 run, it will mark its 66th anniversary.