Go Big or Go Home
We catch up with Craig Dixon '93 as he opens the doors to the St. James, a 450,000-square-foot sports and wellness center in Springfield, Va.
In September, a sports, wellness, and entertainment complex the likes of which the D.C. Metro region has never seen opened its doors to members and guests alike. The St. James consists of almost half a million square feet of indoor space on a 20-acre property on the southern end of the beltway in Springfield, Va. It aims to be the Swiss Army Knife of sports and fitness and, as Crocodile Dundee once said, “Now that’s a knife.”
Inside its walls are a FIFA regulation-sized turf field – the only such publicly accessible field on the East Coast – four full-length basketball courts that can be converted into nine volleyball courts, 3,000 feet of climbing and bouldering walls, a gymnastics training center, and an Olympic-size pool imported, piece by piece, from Italy.
But wait, there's more!The St. James houses seven golf simulators, eight squash courts, and two NHL regula- tion-size ice rinks – a detail certainly appealing to one of the center’s best-known members, the co-founders and co-CEOs Craig Dixon ’93 and Kendrick Ashton want The St. James to be everything to everyone who wants to be active. Washington Capitals Captain Alexander Ovechkin.
There’s an indoor water park with seven slides and giant buckets filling and dumping its contents on frolicking kids, a massive 50,000-square-foot health club, and a premium wellness and rejuvenation medispa. There’s also an active entertainment center with zip lines, “ninja warrior”-style obstacle courses, and trampolines, plus a restaurant and retail store.
Finally, a sports medicine center will open in the spring. “We are aiming to fill what we see as a strong demand for a high quality, comprehensive sports and entertainment expe- rience,” Craig says. “The St. James is driven by a focus on providing excellence in coaching and athletic development at all levels, by facilities that make the experience of being active in and of itself rewarding.
“Some of the people who come here will be interested in the highly-competitive travel team experiences,” he says. “For others, though, it will be just learning how to hit a curveball. Others will want to try out a new sport, or a new routine that can keep them active and that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives. Our goal is to create the right pathways for people no matter what their level of ambition.”
The plan for the complex was so massive, so wildly ambi- tious, that the founding partners have become more than accustomed to skepticism. They are no strangers to the thought that their plan was either foolish or impossible – or both.
Their first try at landing The St. James in Alexandria, back in 2013, eventually fell through due to skepticism over its feasibility and complications with use of the proposed loca- tion. In a public meeting about that original site proposal, Craig admitted, “There’s a tremendous amount of risk for us, but there’s no other way to do this.” Moments later, his partner Kendrick added, “Either we’re brilliant, or we’re idiots.”
Two years later, the proposal found its present location on the beltway and had all the financial backing necessary to bring it to life. The entire journey of detours and revisions took just over five years.
Their goal is to welcome 1.5 million entrants into their facility in its first year, and they’re well on the way. Boosted by a massive attendance at their grand opening, they welcomed over 12,000 in just the first two weeks.
They have already begun the process of building their second “destination complex” in Chicago. The doors are expected to open on that facility in 2021. The number of fans and believers in their big, crazy dream grows every day.
BUSINESS IN HIS BLOODThe true genesis of The St. James is older even than Craig’s first days at Episcopal High School, borne inside the heart of the son of Jamaican immigrants who built their lives around running and maintaining small businesses.
“Even my aunts and uncles were small business people,” he says. “It’s because they all came to this country and did not have the kinds of relationships or educational opportu- nity that made it easy to venture into the corporate world, or the banking world, or places that people typically find themselves when they’re developing a career after school.”
The uphill battle of living or dying with a small business was not a fate they desired for their son.
“My father’s been working his own business opportunities since he was 15 years old, so it was kind of in my blood, but my parents strongly discouraged it. They wanted me to go to school and get as much education as I could, get a good job, and not have to have the same kind of challenges that entrepreneurs and small business people often face.”
Craig matriculated from Episcopal to The College of William & Mary, where he also attended and graduated from the Marshall–Wythe School of Law. Over the next decade, he would work for three different firms, involved in the world of corporate law and mergers and acquisitions.
For a while there, Craig’s parents thought they had succeeded in steering him clear of the risky entrepreneurial world. The corporate world, however, was a great place to witness and learn the process from a different altitude, to understand how people finance large entrepreneurial ambitions, to learn the strategic considerations that go into building a business, and to study how to integrate a business after acquiring it.
Meanwhile, Craig remained closely connected to his William & Mary classmate and friend Kendrick Ashton, who had gone on to University of Chicago Law School and into the world of investment banking. They were in one another’s weddings and made efforts to talk and see one another regularly over the years.
And they were dreaming big dreams together.
SENSING A NEED FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY“We would regularly talk about different opportunities, kicking around ideas,” Craig says. “The St. James is really just an outgrowth of our experiences as young athletes in the D.C. region. We were running around all over trying to compete, trying to improve our skills, not always being able to get access to the facilities or programs or coaching that we wanted. We were witnessing, over the ensuing period, this exponential increase in demand from the consumer for these kinds of experiences and not seeing the market really respond.”
Sure, he notes, the market has seen tremendous growth in what Craig refers to as “boutique centers” that specialize in a very specific brand of fitness such as CrossFit or barre. This growth is, however, “really fitness-oriented and almost totally adult-focused,” he says. “So you still have this huge supply and demand imbalance where sports and the whole family come into the conversation.”
Craig and Kendrick knew they could fill that gap. In 2011, they began to research large facilities around the country that aimed to serve the kind of wide-ranging clientele they sought, with multiple options across the sports and fitness spectrum, all under one roof.
“In late 2012 into early 2013, we got to a place where we felt like we had done the analyses needed in order to prove the thesis,” he says. “And we knew that in order to give ourselves the best shot at success, it was something that we had to focus on with 100 percent of our time and energy. ”
They both quit their jobs and pushed all their proverbial chips into the center of the table, betting everything on The St. James. It was a moment when Craig went against his parents’ initial hopes for him by offering them the ultimate compliment: he wanted to do what they did so well, only bigger, and he had carefully, patiently invested the first 35 years of his life making sure he was ready.
“I had developed a very successful career. I had multiple options ahead of me in that career path, but…I knew that I would always wonder,” he says. “I would always wonder what things would have been like had I taken a shot at trying to build something, at entrepreneurism. I had to answer that question for myself.”
THE ENERGY AND THE EFFORTNow Craig stands inside a complex that has become a fully-realized dream of a lifetime. Does he smile when he thinks about those who doubted him and his partner?
“No, I don’t. I understand why they were skeptical,” he says. “It’s hard to start something new. It’s hard to build something from scratch. Even just the physical develop- ment of real estate is hard. And many, many people never even get so far as to put a shovel in the ground.”
Going from a dream to over 450,000 square feet on 20 acres can feel not merely like a big leap, but a continental one. Craig says they had many who wondered whether they should start smaller and work up to this.
“We spent our professional careers working on so many large transactions, and those experiences taught us that it’s all the same, just with extra zeroes on the end of the number. It’s the work that you have to put in that matters. The energy and the effort is absolutely the same.
“We are building a national, hopefully international, brand here,” he says. “We want to be the center of the universe for every active community wherever we build The St. James. We want to work within that community to set up the best experiences for anyone, no matter their needs, no matter their level of skill or ability,” he says.
Craig built a foundation from many parts – from a child watching his parents cultivate a business, to a student thriving first on the Hill and then in Williamsburg, to a lawyer helping others start and grow businesses – all of it, brick by brick, one square foot of experience at a time, building up over years, to this moment.
“Now, we’re doing it for ourselves, for our families, and for a consumer market that we really want to serve.”