Weekend bookings at Spooky Nook Sports Complex already filled, developer says
Bookings at the massive Spooky Nook Sports Complex , currently under construction in Butler County, are already filling up.
Every weekend from April to August is booked, according to Sam Beiler, founder and owner of Spooky Nook Sports. He said 8,000 to 10,000 people are expected per day every weekend for a variety of tournaments including basketball, volleyball and wrestling.
News: Spooky Nook conducts update tour and announces its first tenant, Municipal Brew Works
"Our bookings are solid," Beiler told Hamilton City Council during a presentation on Wednesday. "We're really pleased with the interest. That interest has been strong now for months."
What is the Spooky Nook Sports Complex?
The city of Hamilton is partnering with Spooky Nook Sports, the largest indoor sports complex in the country near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to redevelop the former Champion Paper Mill property , a 40-plus acre brownfield site on the city's riverfront.
The 1.2 million-square-foot project is comprised of an athletics complex as well as a hotel and convention center.
Once completed, Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill will be the second largest convention center space in the Tristate area and the largest indoor sports complex in North America.
Construction continues on Hamilton sports complex after weather setbacks
Construction of the athletics complex faced some setbacks due to a weather-related steel collapse at building 500, a large indoor turf field, in March, Beiler said. The steel has been detached and will likely be removed from the site by the end of next week, though there are no estimates regarding the timing of a rebuild.
News: Weather causes damage to structure at Hamilton's $144 million Spooky Nook complex
"We're very happy to see that getting cleaned up and taken off the site so we can get a fresh start there again," he said, adding progress has started picking up in the last month to six weeks.
A combined 200 workers were at the site on Wednesday, of which 40 were drywall hangers and finishers working on the hotel, Beiler estimated.
Spook Nook Sports Complex adds new tenant
He also announced the addition of another tenant: the Ohio Orthopedic Associates of Southwest Ohio. According to a news release, the practice will occupy 21,287 square feet of the athletics complex.
"We are thrilled to build this relationship with Spooky Nook and look forward to extending world-class sports medicine to the region, as a long-term partnership in health & wellness for The Nook’s patrons and our patients," David Mohler, the practice's CEO, said in a statement.
News: North America's largest indoor sports facility will open in 2021 in Hamilton. Take a peek.
Previously announced tenants are Municipal Brew Works and Petals & Wicks.
'It's gonna be just and incredible 'wow''
Beiler also showed council a minute-and-a-half-long video rendering of the hotel and conference center's interior, which features 233 hotel rooms and 16 conference rooms, with the largest ballroom stretching out to approximately 8,000 square feet. There will also be available 60,000 square feet of tenant/lease space.
"When out citizens and our visitors go inside that building it's gonna be just and incredible 'wow,'" Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller said after watching the video.
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Activity at Spooky Nook Sports mega-complex to begin ramping up
Credit: Nick Graham
As the new year is underway, North B Street in Hamilton will see a lot more activity.
Over the next several weeks, there will be a handful of sporting events as more of Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill comes online, half of the 1.2 million-square-foot complex. There will also be more unpublicized events at the Champion Mill Conference Center being booked, such as the annual Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce Annual meeting set for Jan. 27.
The $165 million Spooky Nook at Champion Mill project is believed to be a key part of the city’s economic development efforts, as it has drawn in new businesses and has seen existing businesses expand. With buildings on the western shore of the Great Miami River and on either side of North B Street, it features 1.2 million square feet of indoor and outdoor sports space, hotel rooms, conference rooms, entertainment venues, food options, and more. The complex is named for the original sports Center on Spooky Nook Road in Manheim, Pa., and for the former Champion Paper Mill, which previously occupied the site.
Spooky Nook at Champion Mill is Ohio’s second-largest convention center and the nation’s largest sports complex, as the development features 19 meeting rooms, 28 basketball courts, 46 volleyball courts, a 65,000-square-foot fitness center and a 233-room hotel. Also, it will soon open the Champion Mill Arcade , a 5,000-square-foot arcade leased to Pinball Garage owner Brad Baker.
City Manager Joshua Smith hinted at more development and business news to the Journal-News, saying, “there are several things that have not been announced yet, that we’ll be announcing, I’m guessing, late first quarter, early second quarter (2023) that people will truly recognize what the true impact of Spooky Nook is for Hamilton.”
Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President Dan Bates said although the ramp-up is gradual, “seeing is believing.”
“It’s exciting to see enough movement forward to prove the project is coming to fruition as promised,” said Bates. “I actually like that there is a gradual build because it gives local businesses and residents an opportunity to adjust. The business community is excited but also has a learning curve to adjust to a whole new influx of customers.”
Though the facility is open and Spooky Nook officials are bringing more features online as time progresses, facility spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said, “There is work still to do.”
“As we invite more people into our complex for competitions, rec leagues, our fitness center, practices, and events, we know they will be amazed at the magnitude of our facility and all that we bring to the area,” she said. “We look forward to being the place where people gather together for fun and entertainment and to be able to introduce visitors to all that the Hamilton community has to offer.”
While the facility’s organizers are scheduling events and tournaments, they are delaying what could be one of their marquee events in the future. The MLK Champion Mill Classic volleyball tournament will be postponed until January 2024, Bastian said, adding that the delay for the tournament is for Spooky Nook officials “to focus on other events we have scheduled. They’ll have additional tournaments coming this summer and fall.
There is a parking $5 fee to spectate or participate in an event at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill, and Bastian said tournament organizers might charge an additional entry fee. Though there are annual membership fees for the complex, people can purchase a daily fitness center pass for $15, but fitness center members have members-only pickleball courts and a basketball court. Hotel guests and those purchasing a day pass would have access to those as well, Bastian said.
Here are the scheduled events set for Spooky Nook in the coming weeks:
- Feb. 4-5: Champion Mill Futsal Classic
- Feb. 5: Spooky Nook Champion Mill and Field Hockey Life Field Hockey Tournament
- Feb. 18-19: The Sweetheart SMASH Youth Basketball Tournament
- March 18-19: The Shamrock Showdown Youth Volleyball Tournament
- March 25-26: Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Shootout Youth Basketball Tournament
General facility hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays to Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
The winter adult rec leagues have already started, but registration is still open for the winter youth boys and girls basketball leagues, which start later this month. For rec league information, visit www.spookynooksports.com/hamilton and select “Sports” on the menu bar at the top of the website.
When at Spooky Nook, there are several local businesses that either have or will open. Municipal Brew Works was the first Hamilton business to open within the development. and Hamilton businesses Sara’s House and Petals & Wicks will open a second location within the conference center side of the complex, and Flub’s Dariette will open its fourth Butler County location inside Spooky Nook.
Spooky Nook will have its own restaurant open, called the Forklift & Palate , but an opening date has not been announced.
Orthopedic Associates of Southwest Ohio, whose medical staff will be the first to aid athletes injured at the sports facility, announced in September it will be opening a facility inside Spooky Nook.
About the Author
Michael D. Pitman has been a reporter in southwest Ohio since 1999. He's covered local governments in Warren and Butler counties, as well as state and national issues. He currently covers the cities of Fairfield and Hamilton.
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Spooky Nook Sports to host free activities night
HAMILTON, Ohio (WKRC) - Spooky Nook Sports in Hamilton is throwing open its doors on Saturday for visitors to enjoy free activities.
The facility will be free from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday for those who want to check it out.
Spooky Nook hopes it will be a great opportunity for those who want to get a look at the facility, or for families who want a game night at no cost.
"We have basketball, volleyball, pickleball and all different kinds of events open and available for people to come and enjoy," said Scott Rodgers, General Manager of Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill. "We've talked to a lot of the local community and they were looking to come out and enjoy the space."
Some of the games in the arcade will be half-price.
There will also be discounted food and drinks available.
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Flag football, ultimate frisbee, manheim, pa, champion mill, hamilton, oh, east petersburg, pa, spooky nook sports celebrates its 10 year anniversary.
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On June 3, 2013 Spooky Nook Sports opened its doors to the public for the first time. Ten years later, The Nook has had a significant impact on the Lancaster community in more ways than one. From that opening day, to becoming an iconic destination for athletes, families, and sports enthusiasts alike, Spooky Nook Sports has transformed the regional landscape of sports tourism.
Owner and Founder of Spooky Nook Sports, Sam Beiler, spent most of his professional career with Auntie Anne's. Starting there in his early 20's, he spent 21 years within the organization. Eventually, Beiler purchased the company and became Chairman and CEO in 2005. Five years later in 2010, he made the decision to sell the company to FOCUS Brands, the leading developer of global, multi-channel food service brands. While he didn't know in that moment what the future would hold, retirement was a serious consideration.
In this newly founded free time, Beiler could often be found in attendance at his daughter's travel volleyball games. Throughout this experience, he couldn't help but notice the areas of opportunity in the world of youth sports. The gyms they traveled to often had no more than 2 or 3 courts. This meant that for a larger-scale tournament, they were traveling around to multiple locations sometimes several times a day. Beiler also couldn't help but notice the worn state of these facilities and the lack of staff available (and willing) to help customers. Eventually, the idea was born to open a brand new 10 court facility that prioritized the guest experience. Anyone who has been to The Nook's 14-acre building knows that reality got a little bit bigger than Beiler originally thought.
- March 2013 - Spooky Nook hosts a volleyball tournament for MLK Weekend prior to the business even being fully open.
- June 3, 2013 - Spooky Nook opens its doors to the general public and is officially operational.
- 2015 - The Warehouse Hotel and Forklift & Palate Restaurant opens inside of the complex. The Hotel offers 135 rooms to both weekend tournament guests, as well as weekday transient traffic.
- November 2016 - Spooky Nook reaches the milestone of 1 million annual visitors for the first time.
- April 2018 - Spooky Nook purchases the former LANCO Field House, which is 5 miles from the main property in Manheim. This serves as additional space and overflow surfaces to help expand The Nook's capacities, as well as hosting Nook Gymnastics.
- October 24, 2018 - Hamilton, OH City Council voted unanimously 7-0 in favor of the development agreements with Spooky Nook Sports. A ceremonial groundbreaking took place on Thursday, October 25.
- May 19, 2022 - Champion Mill Conference Center, the region’s second-largest convention space, hosts its first major event.
In an economic impact study completed by Tourism Economics in 2017, there was an estimated $87.1 million of economic impact on Lancaster County from Spooky Nook Sports. It was estimated that Nook Sports revenue and off-site ancillary spending will result in a total direct impact of $54.7 million. This direct spending will ultimately support:
Lancaster County Impact in 2017: • $87.1 million in total business sales; • $28.4 million in total labor income; • 1,346 total jobs
It's important to note that in 2017, Spooky Nook was seeing 1.2 million visitors on an annual basis. In 2022, that number was nearly 1.5 million. That's a 25% in just 5 years. Based on the numbers from that study as well as the increase in traffic since then, it is estimated that Spooky Nook has created over 13,000 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced) and generated $379 million in hotel revenue (as of June 2023) for the surrounding area.
Using the $87.1 million number for spending in Lancaster, it can be estimated that over the course of all 10 years, that number is nearly 1 billion dollars.
From Discover Lancaster's President and CEO, Edward Harris , during his reflection on 10 years of Nook operations:
“Sports tourism throughout Lancaster County continues to increase, and Spooky Nook Sports is a huge part of that growth and our rising regional & national profile in this important visitor segment.
It’s only fitting that as we celebrate Spooky Nook’s 10th anniversary, we do so in continuing appreciation for their leadership in helping to pull our destination through and out of the recent pandemic, as sports tourism was one of the first types of travel to bounce back in the summer of 2020 and has been going strong ever since. The Spooky Nook team runs a first-class operation and the venue is a great partner for our entire tourism industry, so we’re very lucky to have them in Lancaster County and look forward to additional collaboration in further improving our sports travel landscape. Moreover, Spooky Nook is a fabulous, multi-purpose, and certainly unique meetings/conventions/events (M/C/E) property, so the combined effect it has in both sports and M/C/E hosting – from the recent Tyrant Wrestling Duals with an estimated economic impact (EEI) of nearly $1 million to next year’s AQS QuiltWeek and its EEI of just over $2 million – essentially doubles its overall value to our destination.”
From Lisa Riggs , President of Economic Development Company of Lancaster County:
"Spooky Nook Sports has made a significant impact on Lancaster County’s economy in its ten years, including showcasing an extraordinarily creative re-use to an existing building.
While attracting recreational teams to elite athletes is what it may be most known for, this significant investment also is credited with spurring additional hotel and hospitality-related investments along the 283 corridor and helping to fortify demand for family-oriented entertainment and restaurants throughout Lancaster County."
From Theresa K. Miller , Vice President of Hotels for Dommel’s Hotel Management:
"The essence of being part of a host community to a massive venue like Spooky Nook Sports is a tremendous responsibility, and a remarkable opportunity for our businesses. The year-round economic impact of major events at the Nook append revenues generated, county tax dollars collected, and gainful employment of so many people across Lancaster County.
The indirect effects of guest-spend throughout the county in restaurants, attractions, and retail link the sports industry at the Nook and Lancaster County’s economic development. This certainly has been the case for the last ten years with Spooky Nook Sports – they are a noteworthy economic asset for Lancaster County!"
The following are experiences shared by some of the team members at Spooky Nook who are celebrating their 10 year work anniversary alongside The Nook.
Q: What do you enjoy or look forward to about working for this company that has kept you with it for such a long time? Is there a particular event, success story, or customer experience that stands out to you as a testament to the impact this business has had on the community?
- "I enjoy working those in our office and not having the same things to do daily. I book space daily, but there are always specific needs to work around and figure out. It’s a giant puzzle and I enjoy being a large part of putting it together" - Eric R.
- "My coworkers are my second family and we all share a passion for the Nook and its success. On weekends when I am out running errands, shopping or eating and I see all the out of state teams and their families that are in Lancaster county for the tournament is truly amazing to see. The number of people that come through the complex let alone our community is astronomical." - Danielle W.
- "Spooky Nook gave me an opportunity to begin building a career. I have really appreciated the opportunity to learn from so many great minds in my ten years and to work with others who genuinely strive for the success of the business. Working in a culture where you know the person next to you won’t let you fail is extremely rewarding both personally and professionally." - Kyle B.
- "Spooky Nook is such a unique business that does a wide variety of events on a daily basis. There’s never a dull moment while working at the Nook and it’s very cool to see the types of events and groups that come through the doors. I also wouldn’t be able to work at the same place for 10 years if I wasn’t surrounded by amazing people. I’ve worked with incredible people at the Nook and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those relationships." - Katelyn M.
- "For me, the most rewarding experience is seeing kids who started out as campers become team members or join an academy team. The end of every camp season always felt like such a success, to know we safely took care of a lot of peoples kids and gave them a great experience." - Staci C.
Q: What lessons have you learned along the way that you would want to share with your 2013 self, of what lessons would you share with a new employee if they started today?
- "Be open to options and willing to adjust and change on the fly. Saying no is sometimes easy, but being able to look deeper at a situation and see what we can do has led to our growth as a facility and able to help other tournament organizations grow larger with us." - Eric R.
- "If I could tell myself in 2013 that all the long hours and hard work was going to pay off and to keep going, I would. Anyone that has been apart of a start up knows how much blood, sweat and tears goes into making a business successful. We have had our growing pains to say the least but we have become a well oiled machine." - Danielle W.
- "Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and don’t let failure stop you. Every difficult moment builds character. Find a network of people who challenge you and help you grow, professionally and personally." - Katelyn M.
- "Failure is a part of growth – never fear failure as you push forward. I have had many ideas fail along the way but consistently attempting to push forward in new areas has allowed me to be successful in the long run." - Kyle B.
- "Share your ideas, even if they seem like common sense. Use your Outlook calendar, it is your best friend and you WILL NOT remember everything people say to you. It’s okay to say you don’t know. Boundaries will become your other best friend. Communicate everything, most issues are caused by a lack of it." - Staci C.
From The Nook's inception as idea for a 10-court volleyball facility to its realization as the largest indoor sports complex in North America, this remarkable facility has left an indelible mark on the sports landscape in our community. It has become a testament to the power of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the unwavering support of passionate sports community.
As we look forward to the next chapter in the Spooky Nook Sports story, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to the athletes, coaches, families, and guests all of kind who have made this decade an unforgettable one. Together, we have witnessed moments of triumph and inspired the next generation of athletes to push beyond their limits.
As Spooky Nook Sports continues to evolve, we embrace the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Here's to another ten years of sports, growth, and memories that will continue to shape the legacy of Spooky Nook Sports and the community who has so vehemently supported us.
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Things to do Near Spooky Nook Sports
Visiting Spooky Nook Sports? Take a short drive from the complex to discover fun-filled adventure in Lancaster County!
Spooky Nook Sports is the country’s largest indoor sports complex, exhibiting 14 acres of courts, turfs, games, food, and fun all under one roof. It may be hard to imagine that there could be more fun to have in Lancaster, but trust us, there is! Whether you’re staying for a weekend tournament or just a single-day scrimmage, Lancaster has everything you need to entertain your sports team.
1. Visit Downtown Lancaster
Only a short 15-minute drive away, Lancaster’s vibrant downtown is waiting for you to explore! Downtown Lancaster truly has it all, from beautiful historical buildings to fine dining and boutique shopping. Lancaster City features “must-visit” attractions such as the Lancaster Central Market , America’s oldest continuously operating farmers market, and Southern Market , a recently renovated food hall that offers 10+ different food options of all different cuisines and backgrounds. Another fun and unique destination is Decades , a six-lane boutique bowling alley and arcade with a full-service restaurant and bar. Located in the historic Stahr Armory on North Queen Street, Decades evokes nostalgia with class in a 90-year-old 15,000 square foot gymnasium filled with fun for all ages.
2. Experience Outdoor Adventure
Looking for a breath of fresh air? Luckily for you, Lancaster’s choices for outdoor adventure are about as endless as our landscapes!
Located a quick 10 minutes away from Spooky Nook Sports are wonderful hiking and walking locations such as Long’s Park and Chickies Rock Park . Looking to explore on wheels instead? There are plenty of ways to rent a bike and explore on your own or join a bike tour. Chiques Rock Outfitters and Unique Lancaster Experiences offer convenient and easy bike and electric bike rentals to help you explore Lancaster nature in style.
If you’re still in the mood for some outdoor excitement, Corn Cob Acres is a farm with over 50 activities that will leave your group entertained and satisfied for hours! With tons of unique activities and experiences, mixed with great food and friendly staff, it makes the 15-minute drive there feel like a breeze.
3. Enjoy Some Friendly Competition
If you have a group whose competitive spirit outlives the courts and fields of Spooky Nook Sports, then these options may be just what you need!
Located just outside of the heart of downtown Lancaster, Escape Room Lancaster offers a unique interactive, entertainment experience that appeals to a wide range of demographics. Work as a team to beat the 1-hour time limit of the 3 unique and customized escape rooms that Escape Room Lancaster has available.
Head over to Boulder’s Miniature Golf Course to enjoy their 18-hole miniature golf course. The course is conveniently located next to Scoops Ice Cream & Grille – the perfect spot for a round of victory ice cream! Shoot for a top score and be featured on the digital leaderboard at Laserdome Family Fun Center . Laserdome features their high-tech Laser Tag Arena, along with their huge collection of classic and new prize games.
4. Explore Lancaster’s History
Since its founding in 1729, Lancaster has had a rich and cherished history. Lancaster County museums and tours offer insight into every aspect of Lancaster’s history and culture. Both the National Watch & Clock Museum and President James Buchanan’s Wheatland are only about 15 minutes away from Spooky Nook. These immersive museums are great for groups to have an educational, yet entertaining experience.
The Lancaster Science Factory and North Museum of Nature and Science both offer a more “hands-on” experience for learning, allowing for your inner scientist to come out and play! The North Museum of Nature and Science features a planetarium, nature gallery, live animal room, and so much more. The Lancaster Science Factory features over 75 interactive exhibits such as their sustainable energy dance floor and their water lab.
5. Shop Till You Drop!
Long known for our fabulous outlet stores and hand-crafted Amish goods, Lancaster County is a shopper’s paradise. In addition to name-brand items found at our outlets and malls, Lancaster also has unique treasures in store at our local shops.
The Shops at Rockvale and the Tanger Outlet Center are both conveniently located along route 30, offering a combined total of over 100 different name brand shopping stores. These shops feature names such as Gap, Nike, Under Armour, and Calvin Klein.
Step away from the mainstream and support some local Lancaster businesses by shopping the streets of our small towns. Lancaster’s boutique shops are filled with unique gifts, rare books, collectibles, and curated vintage items, creating a truly memorable Lancaster shopping experience. Pennsylvania Dutch Country offers authentic quilts, furniture, farmers markets, and antique shopping. These items are often handmade and have long-lasting quality!
6. Immerse Yourself in Amish Culture
Lancaster County’s Amish Country is one of the most notable things about Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Home to one of America’s oldest Amish settlements, the PA Amish are a vital part of Lancaster County’s rich culture.
Immerse yourself in Lancaster’s Amish culture by taking a Pennsylvania Amish countryside horse and buggy ride . Afterward, explore one of our many Amish-themed attractions, such as the Amish Farm & House located just off Route 30 or The Amish Village located in Ronks, PA. These attractions offer a glimpse into the unique day-to-day lives, as well as the history and beliefs, of the PA Amish communities.
7. Dine Like a Local
Farm-to-Table cuisine is a way of life here in Lancaster County, with homemade and hand-crafted delights filling tables and tummies. Lancaster is the birthplace of the whoopie pie and is famous for traditional homemade PA Dutch style cooking. This hearty and welcoming cuisine that we’re known for now proudly shares the stage with an eclectic collection of casual eateries , quaint cafes , unique international restaurants , and fine dining .
Experience PA Dutch goodness at the largest smorgasbord buffet in the USA, Shady Maple Smorgasbord . Shady Maple features their founder’s favorite family recipes, prepared fresh daily. Another great smorgasbord to try is Miller’s Smorgasbord Restaurant and Bakery , serving real, good food since 1929. Both accommodate large groups and have something that everyone will enjoy!
Lancaster City offers a wide range of foodie experiences. Enjoy your dinner at an authentic Irish bar at Annie Bailey’s Irish Pub & Restaurant or settle in for a unique, tasty burger at Lancaster Brewing Company . No matter where you choose to dine, Lancaster will be sure to leave you full and happy!
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Mary Elizabeth Winstead Joins Ewan McGregor in ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ Series at Showtime & Paramount+ (EXCLUSIVE)
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Mary Elizabeth Winstead has signed on to star opposite Ewan McGregor in the upcoming Showtime & Paramount+ series “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Variety has learned exclusively.
McGregor was first reported to be starring in the show back in August 2022. It is an adaptation of the Amor Towles novel of the same name. Production on the limited series is now underway. It will debut on Showtime in the U.S. and on Paramount+ in additional markets around the world.
Winstead will star as Anna Urbanova, described as “a glamorous, independent and self-made film actress, at the height of her fame. She uses her wit and beauty to dazzle Count Alexander Rostov. She’s an enigmatic character who keeps her cards very close to her chest. Reluctant to reveal her true self, Anna plays a role off-screen as well as on. The Count and Anna’s sizzling chemistry is clear from the moment they meet in the Metropol Hotel where he has been banished by a Soviet trial, but will this be true love, or just the latest in a long line of roles Anna is playing?”
This will mark the third onscreen collaboration between Winstead and McGregor, who first worked together when they both starred in Season 3 of “Fargo” at FX. They then worked together on the 2020 DC film “Birds of Prey.” They were reportedly married in 2022 and have one child together.
Winstead’s other recent television roles besides “Fargo” includes shows like “BrainDead” and “Mercy Street.” She is also set to appear in the “Star Wars” series “Ahsoka” on Disney+. In film, she is known for her work in features like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” “Kate,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Smashed,” and “The Spectacular Now.”
She is repped by WME, Entertainment 360, and Jackoway Austen Tyerman.
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What’s happening in Russia? Here’s what we know.
A powerful mercenary chief sent his forces on the move against the Russian military establishment, raising tensions in the country to a level not seen in decades.
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By Eric Nagourney and Mike Ives
- June 24, 2023
A powerful mercenary military leader brought in by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to help salvage his floundering invasion of Ukraine turned his guns on the Russian Army this weekend, and his tanks prowled the streets of his own country.
What just happened?
With Mr. Putin’s regular forces bogged down in what a Russian general once predicted would be a “walk in the park” invasion, the president last year turned for help to a longtime political ally, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of a notoriously brutal private army called Wagner.
Wagner did, in fact, notch wins in Ukraine — but it soon became clear that Mr. Prigozhin, a tycoon with an ego to match the Russian president’s, was not content to limit his fight to one front. Mr. Prigozhin bitterly lashed out against Russian military leaders, accusing them of incompetence and of undermining his fighters.
Then words turned to action.
On Saturday, Wagner forces seized control of key military facilities in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened to enter Moscow. Later in the day, Mr. Prigozhin appeared to back down, announcing that Wagner was “turning around our columns and returning to field camps according to plan.”
But for Mr. Putin, it is the most serious challenge to his hold on power since he became president in 1999.
The Russian president had held his tongue in recent months as his old ally grew increasingly outspoken, perhaps because Mr. Prigozhin was always carful to profess his personal loyalty.
That ended on Saturday.
“A stab in the back of our country and our people,” declared Mr. Putin to the Russian people, vowing “decisive actions.”
Here is what we know.
How big is the Wagner group?
Mr. Prigozhin’s shadowy private military company first emerged before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when the country seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Since then, it has grown greatly in size and reach.
By some estimates, Wagner has perhaps 50,000 fighters at its disposal overall, though Mr. Prigozhin spoke this weekend of deploying a force half that size in his new battle against the Russian Defense Ministry.
Last year, when Wagner was called upon again to help in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin set out to expand his ranks. Freed from the constraints of the Russian bureaucracy, and insulated by his ties to Putin, he raised eyebrows by recruiting from Russian prisons.
Mr. Prigozhin offered inmates a deal: Fight for Wagner and earn your freedom. But the reward for many was not freedom but death. The soldiers were barely trained before being sent to the front lines, and those who tried to desert were executed.
Mr. Prigozhin, part of a charmed circle of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Mr. Putin, has long proved useful to him both at home and abroad. The Kremlin has used Wagner to exert its influence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique.
Mr. Prigozhin was even implicated in a U.S. political scandal. In 2018, he was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they had interfered in the 2016 American election.
Is this a coup attempt?
No, said Mr. Prigozhin, even as his fighters seized Russian installations.
Yes, said Russian generals, as the Russian authorities opened an investigation into the Wagner leader for “organizing an armed rebellion.”
Mr. Prigozhin, who has repeatedly professed his loyalty to the Russian president, said his target was the Defense Ministry. “The evil borne by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he said in one of a series of voice recordings posted to the Telegram social network Friday night.
Whatever Mr. Prigozhin’s goal, his decision to deploy his forces in his own country had immediate reverberations.
On Saturday, Mr. Putin mobilized Russian troops to put down the assault. There were signs of active fighting along a major highway traveled by armored convoys, and regional governors urged residents to stay away from the corridor.
Mr. Putin said that military and civilian functions had “essentially been blocked” in an important military hub for the war in Ukraine, an implicit acknowledgment of some success by Mr. Prigozhin.
One Russian general urged Mr. Prigozhin’s fighters not to “play into the hands” of an enemy that he said was waiting for Russia’s internal political situation to worsen.
As the events played out in Russia, Ukraine’s armed forces posted three words on Twitter: “We are watching.”
Military and national guard
armored vehicles were deployed
early Saturday morning.
Wagner forces are “turning
around,” its leader said
late on Saturday, after
convoys reach Elets.
Fighting seen in
the late morning.
Heavy fighting with
helicopters was seen
just after dawn.
Wagner group claimed
control of the city early
Sea of Azov
What set off the fighting?
For months, when he has not been bragging about his force’s successes in Ukraine — including after a long and bloody battle in Bakhmut — Mr. Prigozhin has complained about military leaders.
He has accused Russian generals of failing to provide his forces with enough ammunition and of ignoring soldiers’ struggles. And he has been scathing about their prosecution of the war.
Then late Friday, Mr. Prigozhin took it to a new level, accusing the military of attacking his fighters’ encampments — a claim that could not be immediately verified. Calling his fighters “patriots of our motherland,” he pledged to retaliate.
Mr. Prigozhin also described the invasion of Ukraine as a “racket” perpetrated by a corrupt Russian elite.
Mike Ives is a general assignment reporter. More about Mike Ives
Our Coverage of the War in Ukraine
News and Analysis
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Staying Put: As millions fled Ukraine after Russia invaded, some foreigners made the unlikely decision to remain , among them students determined to finish their education and others who now consider the country home.
Cashing In: Trade between China and Russia topped $200 billion in 2023, reflecting closer ties between the two economies since the war began .
A Boycott Turned Bonanza: Putin has turned the departures of Western companies into an enrichment scheme for his government, Russian elites and the Kremlin’s war effort .
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