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SPRINGFIELD, Va. - Kendrick Ashton and Craig Dixon met as college underclassmen 24 years ago. Ashton would go on to make his fortune in finance. Dixon would make his in law. Then, about six years ago, these old friends got a new idea. And it's fair to say they think big.
This week they'll open a sports and wellness complex so outsized that just about the only thing bigger is their ambition to take the concept national.
The St. James, a 450,000-square-foot behemoth in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, is set to open Saturday. It'll house a wide-ranging array of sports, wellness and active-entertainment options all under one roof. Oh, and that roof offers clearances of as much as 65 feet in the field house.
"The St. James is not big for the sake of being big," Dixon says. "It's large because we had to build the venues necessary to fit and accommodate the requirements of the sports we're serving."
FIFA regulation-size field in the field house? Check. Two NHL regulation-size rinks? Check. Eight squash courts, seven golf simulators and six batting cages? Check, check -- and check.
There's a 50-meter Olympic regulation-length pool, indoor water park, gymnastics center, climbing and bouldering spaces, e-sports gaming theater, four full-length basketball courts that are convertible to nine volleyball courts. Did we mention the 50,000-square-foot health club? Or the sports medicine center? How about the restaurant set to open in November? And even that's not everything.
Ashton and Dixon, co-founders and co-CEOs, decline to say what the high-end construction cost other than that it's "a meaningful investment." Cain International, a diversified international real estate investment firm, is a financial partner. The campus sits on 20 acres near a confluence of well-traveled highways within 10 miles of more than 1.2 million people.
So, is it a matter of: If you build it, they will come? Dixon seems slightly offended at the notion it's that simple.
"We did a tremendous amount of work in order to develop a business thesis," he says, including studying sports participation by ZIP code in some of the nation's most affluent counties as well as "studying businesses in this space more broadly across the country in order to convince ourselves that this was an idea worth pursuing."
Ashton compares one-stop sporting to the one-stop shopping of the original suburban shopping malls. "People have been buying stuff since we came out of the primordial ooze," he says. "The mall was a new format" for people to shop "and The St. James is a new format for people to consume active endeavors and wellness endeavors."
The old friends hope having so many options under one roof will make the place attractive in this traffic-clogged region. "You are not driving all over town to pursue these passions," Dixon says. "You are coming to one place where you can spend all day -- and we hope you do."
"Families don't just want to do one thing," Ashton says. "The ability for Mom to go to the health club while the daughter is in swim practice. The ability for Dad to hit a golf ball while the son is in lacrosse practice. ... A big part of the scale is the synergy created by having all these uses in one place."
That means their own families too. Dixon has daughters ages 13, 11 and 6. Ashton has 7-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
So what about that name -- St. James? Sounds a bit regal for a place where most users will come to sweat.
"It's derived from the Court of St. James's, which is the place where all the ambassadors to and from the United Kingdom are posted," Ashton says. "The Court of St. James's for a very long time was the center of much of the activity that was happening globally," making it a metaphor for center of the universe. That's what they hope their creation will be for active families.
Ashton, 42, and Dixon, 43, say they've purchased land in Chicago with plans to open a facility there in early 2021. They say they're looking for land in Los Angeles and someday hope to have versions of their palatial gyms in many other cities.
That's the other part of the St. James name: They say it is meant to evoke a sense of timelessness as the brand evolves. And then there's the fact Ashton and Dixon met at the College of William & Mary, which received its charter from the Crown.
"We are alums of the College," Dixon says, "and we have an affinity for all things British."
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