Lehigh Valley Grand Prix owner plans huge outdoor adventure park near Easton
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Mike McCreary had a sense of the economic blow he knew was coming to his business the day the coronavirus pandemic shut down Pennsylvania.
McCreary, owner of Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, an indoor go-kart and entertainment venue in south Allentown, already was watching the ripple effect of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders across the country.
- Lehigh Valley Grand Prix owner Mike McCreary is celebrating 15 years of business in Allentown
- He's expanding with plans in the Easton area for an outdoor entertainment venue complete with a huge ropes course dubbed "HangDog"
- The entertainment complex is slated to open in 2023
“Our business has a ton of fixed costs," McCreary said in an interview. "We occupy nearly 50,000 square feet of space. Our rent isn’t cheap. So if we’re not operating, it’s a scary time, and I think it was a really scary time for all small businesses.”
He prepared himself for the worst, trying to determine how he would keep his company afloat as the country and the economy came to a lurching halt.
By March 19, 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf no longer was recommending "non-essential" businesses to close—he was telling them to.
While it was gut-wrenching, the timing prevented a bad situation from becoming worse for McCreary. He was days away from signing on to launch a second location for his business at a mall in Totowa, N.J., when shutdown orders came.
“The lease showed up on my desk the day we were forced to close,” McCreary said. “How blessed are we that we didn’t sign that lease.”
And so Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, based in a massive multi-tenant manufacturing building once known as Mack Truck Plant 4, moved in a different direction as McCreary drafted a game plan to maneuver through the crisis and come out the other side.
Now, the business—celebrating its 15th year—continues to expand in a completely different way.
‘The largest [ropes course] on the East Coast'
By this time next year, a raw four-acre site that can be spotted from Interstate 78 as it cuts through the Easton area will be transformed into a brand new entertainment and adventure destination called HangDog.
The four-story outdoor ropes course off Cedarville Road in Williams Township is McCreary's latest project, and will feature zip lines, free-fall jumps, giant swings and fun for the whole family (from ages 4 and up) that will advance in difficulty, confidence and ability.
"Like a ski mountain, you've got a black run, you've got a blue run, you've got a green run," he said. "There will be color markings that tell you the difficulty level so you can customize your experience based on that difficulty, based on height.
"You know, it's kind of like the world is your oyster. So you can visit our venue, you know, 10 times and have a different climbing experience every time."
The venue—which McCreary said will be "the largest on the East Coast that I'm aware of"—will include 115 climbing elements, including a 250-foot zip line out and back. The swing will be on a 35-foot pendulum that's 40 feet above the ground, and a free-fall jump off the top of the course.
"So you're clipped in and you jump off and it creates a little resistance in the beginning and then starts causing resistance before you hit the ground," McCreary said, noting the device will be manufactured by Head Rush Technologies and will offer thrill seekers an extra "wow factor" to the adventure experience.
"For this whole thing we've got a custom builder. We hired a firm that all they do is they build these venues, and we worked with them on creating the elements and creating this kind of the experience throughout.
"They've been tremendous to work with and it's really neat because they've built a venue in St. Louis, Missouri. They've done a venue in Colorado. There's a smaller venue in Arlington, Virginia, and another smaller one in Peekskill, New York, that they've done.
"But this whole concept is so new. It's kind of like when we got into go-karting 15 years ago...We were probably one of the earliest adapters I'm aware of, but the indoor go-kart tracks were foreign to most people. I think that's where we're at with the ropes industry, is that it's we're on the brink of this thing exploding and we're at the forefront of that trend."
"I think that's where we're at with the ropes industry, is that it's we're on the brink of this thing exploding and we're at the forefront of that of that trend."Mike McCreary, on the opening of HangDog
The name "HangDog" is inspired by McCreary's dog, Dewey, and is also a climbing term for when climbers rests on ropes.
"Climbers hangdog when it's time to take a rest, take in the views and enjoy the adventure," the website says.
Signature brews, fried chicken and artisan pizza
"We're going to have outdoor games and live music and great food and beverages and other things for people to be involved with," McCreary said, with a big emphasis on good eats and signature brews.
The beer garden will be run by Ryan Suchon, who has managed Lehigh Valley Grand Prix from its inception and will make his first foray into brewing.
"I've been to a ton of local breweries at this point and you kind of take bits and pieces away from all the different places you go," Suchon said. "Obviously I do envision it to be something new and different with the whole outdoor experience."
Suchon said while he's a "big IPA person" he plans to lean toward everyday favorites such as pilsners and lagers, and HangDog will aim to collaborate with brewers around the Lehigh Valley.
The bites to go with the brews will include what McCreary described as "killer fried chicken" and artisan pizza that will be made in a Fiero gas-fired Italian pizza oven.
"The challenge we have as an entertainment facility is we need to make sure that we offer food day and night," McCreary said. "So we bought this Henny Penny pressure fried cooker that actually keeps in the moisture as the chicken cooks. It's a really neat process. And then we're doing hand-cut fries. We'll have a really killer side of the menu, but it's going to be a very simple menu and we'll try to execute it really well.
"You go to an entertainment venue, and a lot of times the food's an afterthought. So we're trying to change that in this venue. And we want it to be...we don't want it to feel corporate. We want it to feel like small business, and that's what's exciting."
‘It forced us to re-evaluate our lives’
When Lehigh Valley Grand Prix was forced to close because of the pandemic, McCreary said he faced difficult choices—pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs—that he knew would harm employees who have worked for him for years.
But with the expansion to New Jersey already off the table, he took advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and used the loans to pay staff members to renovate the facility and install a new ax-throwing area that overlooks the quarter-mile, road course-style track on the other side of the wall.
When it opened, it gave guests the opportunity to chuck axes and watch the high-speed fun taking place at the same time.
But in McCreary’s world, bigger is better, and the latest changes back in Allentown include ax-throwing targets with a softer wood that allows digital projection to become part of the experience.
Participants can throw axes at zombies, standard targets (including those that change orientation, including the location of the bullseye) or play classic games such as Tic-Tac-Toe.
McCreary said all the changes weren’t just about an expansion of the business, but about the people and the relationships he says make the business whole.
He credits Allentown Economic Development Corp. for being a great partner, the City of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley for championing redevelopment and manufacturing, and dedicated staff members who have been with him every step of the way.
“Our relationship with the AEDC is tremendous,” McCreary said. “Through all the people that have been in that organization, we’ve communicated and got through some challenging times together. And we find that strong relationships and strong communication is the key to a landlord-tenant relationship that’s a success for both parties.
“A lot of people don’t realize the success stories coming out of the businesses back here. It’s a bit of a forgotten area and it’s an area we kind of put on the map a little bit with all of our foot traffic.”
And if there’s a silver lining as we emerge into what feels more and more like a post-pandemic world, it’s that the past two years spurred soul-searching, innovation and new direction for McCreary.
“I think what COVID taught all of us was it forced us to re-evaluate our lives, right?" he said. "And what I peeled back was that I like picking my kid up off the bus. I like attending her sporting events. I like being a dad.
"And I realized that [expansion away from the Lehigh Valley] would change my lifestyle in a way that I wouldn’t want to live. And so I started thinking, ‘What can we do that would be absolutely epic?’”