Bounce! Provides a Lift for Old Cinema Complex
Getting a Jump on the Competition
It was property basically slated to go dark. That was the fate awaiting the closed cinema complex at the Springfield Plaza … until a group of entrepreneurs with some imagination commenced a process to make it a part of a new wave in business and recreation — trampoline sports. Early returns suggest the facility known as Bounce! was a leap worth taking.
Bill Merrill couldn’t help himself.
When asked how many young people — and some maybe not so young — he expects to see at his new venture, Bounce! Trampoline Sports, on a given day, week, or month, he started by saying, “well, when the place is hopping…’” in a voice that would indicate that he’s used the pun many times before.
Which he probably has. In fact, Merrill would be considered a veteran in this still very young business of trampoline sports — this is his second franchise with the firm Bounce! — and that experience helps explain why he endeavored to bring this concept to Springfield.
And it certainly helped him answer that earlier question. Indeed, Merrill would go on to do that math a little later — he’s anticipating perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 ‘jumpers,’ as they’re called, on an annual basis. In the meantime, he speculated that this establishment, carved out of roughly half the old cinema complex at the Springfield Plaza, will in fact be hopping.
That’s because there isn’t a facility like it in Western Mass., and there are only a few within a 50-mile radius. Meanwhile, a detailed demographic analysis revealed that the Greater Springfield area has the requisite large population of individuals ages 6-18 to make something like this work.
So the $1.5 million investment Merrill and several partners made was not exactly a huge leap from an entrepreneurial standpoint — pun fully intended.
However, it was, and is, a highly imaginative and rather involved reuse of some underperforming commercial real estate, and a gambit that became reality soon enough to keep the competition from … well, jumping in ahead of him.
Merrill, who is also a franchisee with the third Bounce! location, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told BusinessWest that trampoline sports — another of those entrepreneurial trends that has moved from the West Coast to the Northeast — had been gaining considerable steam in New York and New England over the past several years. And he certainly wasn’t the only one scouting sites in the Springfield area, which was among the largest metropolitan areas in the Northeast that did have such a facility at the time.
Those searches were essentially called off, though, when Merrill and his partners went public with their plans at the closing on the lease last June.
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That was just as preliminary design work at the site was beginning, to be followed by extensive interior demolition and new construction that commenced in August and took five months to complete. Bounce! opened its doors on Jan. 29 and staged a grand opening a week later.
Early returns have been solid, and when he talked with BusinessWest, Merrill was looking ahead to the February school vacation as an effective barometer when it comes to whether his math — and his instincts — were right.
He thinks they’re on the money — literally and also figuratively — and he believes the Springfield complex has the facilities, location, and demographic footprint to be among the most successful trampoline centers in the country.
“I can say that because I’ve been to a lot of these parks,” he said. “This one is truly exceptional.”
For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes a look at this different kind of business and how it has brought new life to a piece of property that was slated to go dark and sit idle.
Predicting an Early Spring
Bill Low, a broker with the Springfield-based commercial real-estate firm NAI Plotkin, said Merrill first approached him about finding a location for a trampoline-sports facility more than a year ago.
He didn’t appreciate then just how difficult it would be to secure a home for such a business, but it didn’t take him long to grasp the magnitude of the challenge.
It would come in several parts, but center on three main ingredients — location (that’s a priority for any retail business), parking, and finding the requisite open spaces and, especially, high ceilings — at least 20 feet is required.
“You need a specific type of property for this,” he noted. “And we launched an extensive search across this area. But there just weren’t many locations that fit the profile.”
In other parts of the country, and even Eastern Mass., warehouses have been successfully transformed into trampoline centers, said Merrill, and a few of those were considered in this region.
But, generally, they either lacked the proper dimensions, were located in out-of-the-way industrial areas, had insufficient parking, or a combination of the above. Other than that, they were ideal.
Other types of facilities were considered, such as the former Circuit City location at the corner of Parker Street and Boston Road in Springfield, as was the prospect of building to suit, said Merrill, adding that none of the apparent options on the table were very attractive, pricewise and otherwise. And that’s when another alternative emerged, seemingly from out of nowhere.
Actually, it emerged in the view out the window of the 99 Restaurant at the Springfield Plaza, where the various players in the bid to bring Bounce! to Springfield were having lunch and discussing various options, including the possibility of building a facility on a pad site at the plaza across the street from the restaurant.
That’s when the subject of the cinema complex came up, with Merrill soon learning it had just been acquired by Cinemark, owner of the theater complex on Riverdale Street in West Springfield and others in the region, with plans to place a deed restriction on it to essentially keep additional competition from entering the market.
“They told me the plan was to have that building go dark, and my jaw dropped,” said Merrill, adding that he was dismayed at the prospect of opening a new business next door to such a dormant hulk.
Fast-forwarding a little, the discussion shifted to perhaps leasing a portion of the former theater complex, which, with this use in mind, was eventually sold back to Springfield Plaza owners the Davenport Companies and Albany Road Real Estate as a site for Bounce!
Working with Shelburne Falls-based architect Joe Mattei, Merrill and fellow managing partners Rob Dory and Greg Morgan soon took their concept from their imaginations to the drawing board, and then to the big screen — well, nine of them, actually, comprising roughly 35,000 square feet of jumping space.
That’s how many of the old theaters were leveled, in every sense of that construction term, to make way for a host of different experiences for those aforementioned jumpers.
There are several party rooms, for example, which, as that name implies, are smaller rooms designed to host birthday parties — a few dozen have already been booked — and other gatherings. There are also larger, general bouncing rooms, carved out of the larger theaters, including one with three basketball hoops set at various heights to test those who can now dunk thanks to a lift from a trampoline.
There is a room for younger children, complete with a bounce house, and two so-called Xtreme rooms. There, visitors can find American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle courses of varying levels of difficulty. There are also spaces for dodgeball games on trampolines, an activity that is growing in popularity, said Merrill.
The Springfield location hopes to draw from a wide area ranging from Northern Connecticut to New Hampshire; from the Berkshires to the western fringes of Worcester County, he went on, adding that, while young people and families comprise the primary target audiences, the facility is also hoping to draw students from the many colleges and universities across the area.
He notes that both geographic location and the quality of the venue are factors that will play into those expectations.
“Bounce! is really the Cadillac of this business,” he said. “There are several people doing this now, but these facilities set the standard.”
Whether that standard will translate into business success remains to be seen, but all signs seem to indicate that this facility will indeed be hopping.
And if that’s the case, then it will mean a much different fate for a location that had seen the lights go out and was looking at a fairly dark future.
George O’Brien can reached at [email protected]