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The Real Dirt

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson)

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson) says his passion for the Wick 338 stems from his own participation in the sport of motocross.

Motocross in Southwick is nearly a half-century-old tradition. It’s also a business and a well-tuned economic engine. Like the sport itself, this local enterprise has endured some ups and downs, twists and turns, but, thanks to a father-son team, it is now hitting on all cylinders.

When Rick Johnson relates the history of the Wick 338 motocross track in Southwick, he notes that he never thought he’d be managing the production of a national championship — let alone four of them.

But that’s what has transpired in what can only be called the latest chapter in the story of motocross in this town, perhaps best known for other forms of recreation, specifically those involving the Congamond Lakes, which give the community so much of its character.

It’s a story that, like the sport itself, features a number of twists and turns, ups and downs. With that, Johnson, track manager for the facility, flashes back almost a half-century, to 1972. That’s when the very first Southwick motocross race was held, just a few miles from the location of the Wick 338 track on Legion Road in Southwick, as in American Legion Post 338. Hosted by the New England Sports Committee (NESC), the race was held to benefit the Jimmy Fund and other town charities.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town.”

The event was a huge success, and members of the Legion quickly developed an appetite for more motocross.

Fathers of NESC racers set their minds on building a track of their own and constructed the first version of what now stands at the Wick 338. Led by Bernie Yelin, Pat Smith, Ray Peebles, Dante Molta, Clovis Goyette, and many more, the Wick, as it would come to be called, would bring races, and then a national championship, the first in 1976, to the community. But it also brought much more, including large crowds of people and support for many kinds of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector.

Then came some of those twists, turns, and dips. Indeed, after the 2012 national championship, the race was taken from the Wick because the track’s condition had deteriorated. Soon, the entire operation was in danger of being closed.

That’s when Mike Grondahl stepped into the picture; he worked out a lease with the American Legion to put it back in business.

The former Planet Fitness CEO had a great love for the sport of motocross, but due to a business investment he made prior to his deal with the track, he did not have the time to maintain it properly, and the track lay dormant.

Luckily for him, he knew a family who also loved the sport.

“He called me, and we agreed to do it — but not with the intent of having a national championship here,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “We just wanted to build the best track for the Northeast.”

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

While Grondahl originally reached out to Johnson’s son, Keith, now president of the Wick 338 Promotions LLC, the father-and-son duo agreed that the best way to maintain the track was to work together. Rick would help with the business plan and work with the town, acting as the front man, and Keith would take care of things at the track.

Together, their goal was to bring the track — and the business — back to the high level of success enjoyed decades ago. And, generally speaking, they’ve succeeded in those goals, as evidenced by the national championship staged there just over a week ago. The seventh round of the 2019 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship put an exclamation point on what would have to be called a comeback for motocross racing in Southwick.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Johnsons and others within the community, and learned that motocross is more than a popular spectator sport; it’s also a driving force when it comes to economic vibrancy in Southwick.

Beyond the Track

The national race at the Wick 338 proves to be one of the most physically grueling races for those competing, each twist and turn more challenging than the last.

But this is not the only event that happens at the track.

Rick Johnson said the site hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, each one bringing between 500 and 3,000 people to town.

“It’s great for the town, not just because of the national, although it brings in 15,000 people in that one day,” said Keith. “For the most part, the town is a huge supporter of the entire facility.”

He noted that many business owners even plan around the track’s events.

“When I give my presentation to the town and give them my schedule, there are so many local shop owners there to learn what the schedule is all about so they can plan,” he told BusinessWest.

Southwick Selectman Joe Deedy can attest to this, and said the town simply wasn’t as vibrant when motocross races weren’t staged for a few years. “When motocross went away a couple years back, you could see a ton of people were so disappointed overall.”

Deedy also recalled that, in the old days, competitors would just show up and enjoy the race. Now, a race team might have five or six promoters they are dealing with, bringing in even more business to the local community.

“Every local little mom-and-pop business or even bigger facility that does catering, chances are, they are there catering to one race team or another,” he said.

Deedy and other town selectmen, Doug Moglin and Russ Fox, spoke highly about the track and the effect it has on Southwick, noting that everything from gas stations to breakfast shops do better business when there is a race in town.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town,” said Fox, who has been a selectman, off and on, for nearly 40 years.

Among those people who came to town for this year’s national was a large crew from NBC, which broadcast the race nationally. This exposure, said Fox, helps bring in more people and shines a light on Southwick, home to about 10,000 people.

The Wick 338

The Wick 338 hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, from small races to the recent national event that brought 15,000 people to town.

A national race like the one on June 29 brings in a crowd larger than the community’s population, drawing some traffic and maybe a few headaches, but any negatives are far outweighed by the positives, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, Moglin said, even during an event like the national, someone passing through Southwick wouldn’t know the event was going on, making the track a good neighbor.

Because the town has hosted the event several times before, the accumulated experience helps all those involved put on an event with minimal negative impact within the community, Moglin said, noting that the hour before the event and when it finishes are the only times traffic gets backed up, and additional law-enforcement services are not needed on the streets to help manage the crowds.

More Than Moto

While things may be quiet on the road, the track is always bustling.

Referred to as the Fenway Park of motocross, the Wick 338 hosts everything from open practices to Rugged Maniacs to an event known as Southwick Day. Track managers even volunteer their starting line to light off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Before Rick and Keith hosted their first national event, they knew they needed to upgrade the track in order to make it the best of the best. This included installing new tunnels under the track, trimming trees to make the facility more viewer-friendly, close to 3,000 feet of fencing, a new irrigation system, a brand-new scoring and announcing tower, and more. Four days before the 2019 national, 20 truckloads of dirt were brought in.

These are just a few of the things it takes to run a successful track — and they aren’t cheap. Rick said he knew that, if the Wick charged for general admission only, it would be difficult to generate the revenue needed to pay for the upkeep of the track.

That’s why he got creative and introduced VIP seating.

“We looked and found areas of the track that weren’t being utilized, and we invested in those areas to create VIP sections,” he said, adding that these areas around the track allow ticket holders to get a whole new experience and greatly increase revenues; VIP tickets range from $90 to $375 compared to the general-admission price of $45.

All these investments have led to a four-year run of nationals for the father-and-son duo.

Before Rick and Keith took over at the Wick 338, chain-link fences stood six feet high, and tall trees made it difficult for viewers to truly feel like they were a part of the action. Now, motocross fans have the opportunity to see the dirt flying up-close and personal.

“Those were the things that we felt took away from the character of the New England track,” said Rick. “It was our intent to bring it back as it was back in the ’70s that everybody loved so much, and make it safe.”

They’ve succeeded in that mission, and in the process, they’ve helped rev up the local economy — literally and figuratively.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

The Shape of Things

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon are currently the only two trainers at Body Fit Warehouse, teaching about 40 classes a week, focusing on body-weight exercises.

When a person thinks of ‘working out,’ what typically comes to mind first are the grueling physical challenges the body goes through.

However, Steve Tryon says many personal trainers at gyms today are missing a key piece of the puzzle: the mental and spiritual side of training.

This is what he and co-owner Anna Dichner try to bring to Body Fit Warehouse, a holistic lifestyle and fitness gym in Southwick.

When Tryon first started working at the gym years ago, he had no idea he would one day be buying and co-owning the facility with Dichner, his girlfriend he met seven years ago. The two have since completely transformed their own values, which they remember every day in order to give members the best training possible.

“We rebuilt the whole foundation from scratch to show people that it’s not about how you look, it’s not about how strong you are… it’s about everything else you’re able to do in the rest of your life,” said Tryon, adding that, when the couple bought the gym in February 2018, there were a lot of things that needed to be changed. “The trainers and other practitioners that were here, they weren’t looking at things from a holistic standpoint.”

He’s talking about the importance of addressing what is going on inside people’s minds before the body gets to work.

Dichner added that a key element to how successful they have been with the business so far is how they approach identifying what may be going on in a person’s life outside of the gym, and how they can help fix the problem.

“I always ask every one of my clients, ‘how was your day?’ or ‘how are you feeling?’ because that will dictate the workout and the type of session we’re going to have,” she said.

Tryon and Dichner are the only two trainers in the gym, with 130 regular members paying a monthly fee and 40 to 50 people going through classes each week. Even with this high volume, the two manage to spend one-on-one time with a significant number of their members, while still keeping their focus on supporting a holistic lifestyle for each individual who walks through the door.

More Than Muscle Power

Using an individual approach like the one Tryon and Dichner describe sounds like it might break the bank, but the gym gives members and visitors plenty of options when it comes to finding the right fit for them.

“When we came in, we established right off the bat that we’re going to bring a loving atmosphere to the place to show people that we’re about growth,” said Tryon, adding that he will custom-match anyone who comes through the door. “If you have $5, I’ll train you for $5. We don’t care about how much money you pay, we don’t care about how much you’re capable of or this or that. We just want to show you that we want to grow with you, not just train you and make money from you.”

The 24/7 facility offers a no-contract membership, which means people can pay on a month-to-month basis for a rate of $24.95. The gym also allows drop-ins for $10 a class, and $5 simply to use the facility. The two run about 20 group training sessions a week, and these are not your average gym classes.

Dichner says how many people show up and what kind of energy they give off during the warm-up dictates the type of movements they will do for the day, adding that it is very difficult to plan workouts in advance when she doesn’t know how members will be feeling when they walk through the door.

“We don’t stick to any strict guidelines,” she said. “The holistic practice is, we have to take everything into consideration. If one thing is off, everything is off.”

This “structureless” system, as Tryon calls it, allows the trainers to assess how someone is feeling right off the bat, giving them the ability to create the best training session as possible.

And he says the results are astounding.

The two explained that they have completely different training styles, giving members more options when it comes to choosing how they want to approach a workout.

Both Dichner and Tryon are certified personal trainers, but they credit their ability to get results not to their certifications, but to the experiences they’ve gained throughout their lives. In fact, Dichner says she hardly remembers anything from her certification.

“Once I started training myself and going through trial and error, that’s when I learned the most,” she said. “There’s so much that you learn through hands-on experience.”

Attribute Adjustment

This experience has led to a facility with a completely different mindset about fitness, and Dichner and Tryon have big plans for the future.

“We want to bring it to its full potential,” said Dichner, adding that she hopes they can one day open a much bigger facility with fields and other elements. “The vision keeps changing.”

For now, the couple say helping people grow is the best part of their business. The excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen next helps them stick to their values and continue to give people the best training possible.

“I love seeing people’s attitudes and mindsets change through the training and me helping them,” said Dichner.

“We’re really just enjoying the ride, without a doubt,” added Tryon. “We took it from a gym to a garden.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Star Power

They’re calling it a “pairing party.”

And, as that name suggests, this is a party at which the pairings for the MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, will be announced.

Most golf tournaments in this region, and there are a great many of them, don’t have a pairing party. This one does, and for a good reason — players are being paired with Hall of Famers and legends of the game. The list of those signed on to participate include players such as Allen, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, Bernard King, Muggsy Bogues, and Alex English. And there are others coming, such as ESPN personality Jackie MacMullan.

The opportunity to play with one of these stars is just one of the intriguing aspects of this tournament, which will benefit both the Hall of Fame and local schools, said Jason Fiddler, vice president of Sales & Marketing for the Hall.

Others include the fact that this is a two-day event, with day one being the pairings party at MGM Springfield, and the second day being all golf — at the Ranch in Southwick, one of the region’s premier courses, and also the fact that, the higher the participation level, the more a group gets to choose the star they’ll play golf with.

The tournament, slated for July 25 and 26, is actually a rebirth of a fundraising tournament staged by the Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago, one that was staged in conjunction with enshrinement weekend in September, said Fiddler, adding that it is now one of three golf events the shrine conducts over the course of a year. The others are in Los Angeles in the fall, and in Phoenix in the spring.

“We wanted to bring a premier event back to Springfield — that was one of our primary missions,” he said, noting that Springfield is the birthplace of the sport and home to its Hall of Fame. “We wanted to do something that would bring our Hall of Fame talent back to Springfield on a regular basis.

“We had long conversations with various Hall of Famers to see who we could get engaged,” he went on, “and then had various conversations with local and regional parties to get a title partner involved in the event, and both kind of came together on the same day.”

Elaborating, he said MGM showed great interest in putting its name on the event, and Ray Allen, the former UConn great and key player in the Boston Celtics 2008 championship run, communicated the same level of interest in doing the same — hence the first annual MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, complete with exclamation point.

In addition to raising funds for the Hall of Fame, proceeds will, through Ray Allen Charities, be channeled to a Springfield-based school to be determined later.

“We’re trying to raise enough funds to revamp a computer room or robotics program here in the city,” said Fiddler, adding that $40,000 has been earmarked for such a project. “Everyone’s working behind the scenes to select an appropriate school.”

This latest addition to the Hall of Fame golf portfolio will be like the others in that it will enable participating golfers to play with a legend, said Fiddler, adding that there has been a good deal of positive response to the tournament, although there are still a few foursomes to be filled.

Foursomes cost $2,500, and, as noted, there are higher participations levels and other ways to support the endeavor. Sponsorships opportunities are also available. For more information, visit www.hoophall.com/events/mgm-springfield-hall-of-fame-golf-classic/schedule-of-events.

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

Diversity, Revenue Streams Are Key to Clubs’ Success

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts at Twin Hills Country Club, one of many steps taken to make the game more enjoyable.

The golf business has never been entirely about golf. There has always been a need a diversity in the form of food and beverage, weddings and other events, and even cross-country skiing in the winter. But at a time when clubs are being challenged by declining play and rising expenses, the need to create revenue streams and put all their facilities to use has never been greater.

The ‘10-year challenge.’

That was the social-media phenomenon that started in early January and fizzled out … maybe in mid-January. You remember. Everyone was posting photos of themselves from then and now in an effort to judge who fared best over the ensuing decade.

People did it. Internet companies did it. If Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow did it, it would certainly have fared well against like facilities. Indeed, a decade ago, it was almost a casualty of a changing golf business and a new subdivision in a town that hadn’t seen one built in decades.

But Attilio Cardaropoli, a Twin Hills member who thought the club’s day hadn’t yet come, bought it and commenced writing a remarkable turnaround story. There were 85 members when he acquired it; now there are north of 300, and the number is holding steady. Back then, the course was tired and needed a facelift; same for the clubhouse. He’s done all that work and continues to make improvements every year inside and out, a formula that is certainly working.

“We keep making improvements — every year, we designate some area that needs some attention and improvement, and we continue to do that,” he explained. “Our members like to come in every season and see something new that’s been added on. It’s been a big factor in our success.”

But not many golf operations would have fared nearly as well with the 10-year challenge. The past decade has been a continuation of challenging times that peaked with the Great Recession and improved only slightly in the intervening years.

The story has been told many times. It’s about a falling level of interest in the game, especially among young people, families putting their time and money into avenues that don’t include the local country club, some closures among the area’s large roster of courses, and intense competition among the courses that remain for a shrinking pool of golfers.

And then, in the summer and fall of 2018, the story got even worse, as seemingly relentless rain, a lot of it coming on all-important weekends, erased days from the calendar, robbing clubs of revenue they couldn’t recover.

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael, says both public and private courses must be diverse operations with a number of revenue streams.

“We had nine rainouts on Tuesdays, and it rained quite a few Saturdays and Sundays, too,” said Ryan Hall, head pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, referring to both leagues and daily-fee golf. And with such washouts, a club loses more than greens fees — there’s also cart rentals and food and beverage.

“And people aren’t going to go out and play twice as much the next week,” said Hall, adding that this revenue is essentially lost.

As the 2019 season commences — thankfully early for the clubs able and willing to welcome players in early April or even late March — many challenges remain, said Hall and others we spoke with, but so does a high level of determination to find solutions to the current problems in the golf industry.

Some of them don’t necessarily involve golf, although they relate back to it some ways.
Indeed, diversification and securing new revenue streams are a huge component of the success formula for any club today, public or private, said those we spoke with. This means everything from the 19th hole — many clubs are redoing them and retooling menus at the same time — to more special events, from Mother’s Day brunches to cruise nights to weddings and banquets.

Meanwhile, on the golf side, the driving forces, as always, but especially in this climate, are providing value to existing customers, generating repeat business, and trying to grow the pie by attracting new players, especially when it comes to women and young people.

In some respects, Hall said, a large number of people now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s are not involved with the game because they were not actively introduced to it and encouraged to play it. The industry seems intent on not making this same mistake with today’s young people.

Indeed, it is being more aggressive in getting them on the course through programs like the PGA Junior League, which creates teams of young people who practice together and play against teams from other area courses in an effort to introduce them and ease them into a game they can play into their 90s.

Springfield’s municipal courses have not participated in the program to date, but Hall plans to change that because of the program’s proven success in generating enthusiasm for the game.

“We just have to get golfers out there,” he explained. “We have to get these young kids to start to understand the game a little bit; it starts at the junior level, and if we can start to develop those skills a little bit and develop a love for the game at that age, we can grow the game.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of area club owners and operators and pros to gauge what the 2019 season holds. In most all respects, it holds more of what’s been seen over the past decade, which means still more grinding things out.

Course of Action

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of Twin Hills to highlight the latest changes and improvements, Cardaropoli stopped by the first tee. There, he asked one of the attendants to bring around one of the new four-passenger golf carts the club put into operation last year.

The majority of the club’s golfers make a point of walking, he noted with a discernable dose of pride, adding quickly that, for those who want or need a lift, the new carts have proven to be quite popular, especially with young families.

“Dad can go out with two or three kids, and they can all ride together,” he said, adding that, while this was the constituency everyone had in mind when the carts were ordered, others have taken a liking to them as well.

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow the market by encouraging young people to take up the game.

“Older members are saying that this is a way they can be more sociable — they like them, too,” said Cardaropoli, adding that they are also popular with some playing in the many charitable tournaments hosted by the club, especially those where pace of play is generally slow and four people driving around in the same cart hunting down golf balls won’t slow things down any further.

In many ways, these four-passenger carts are an example of how Twin Hills, and all clubs, are reacting to changing forces around them. They’re responding with strategies to perhaps bring more people into the game and also make it more enjoyable.

And it’s all necessary because, unlike 20 years ago, as Tigermania was sweeping the country and clubs merely had to open the register and point to the first tee, now they have to work at it — and work pretty hard.

Assessing the situation, Dave DiRico, owner of DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, a course pro for more than 30 years, and a close observer of the region’s golf market (for obvious reasons), said the laws of supply and demand have certainly caught up with the golf industry — nationally and also locally.

In short, there’s more supply than current levels of demand would dictate. That’s great for people looking for tee times, but not for course owners facing ever-climbing expenses for everything from personnel to fertilizer and an ultra-competitive market where raising prices is essentially not an option.

All this has led to a thinning of the herd. In late 2017, Southwick Country Club was sold to a residential real-estate developer, and houses are now taking shape along the old fairways. And in Amherst, Hickory Ridge Country Club has closed and will become a solar farm.

These developments certainly benefit the courses remaining in those respective areas, said DiRico, noting that Agawam’s four public courses, Wesfield’s three, and the two remaining in Southwick all picked up some business from the closure of Southwick Country Club. Likewise, remaining courses in Amherst and neighboring Belchertown stand to benefit from Hickory Ridge’s demise.

But the market is still saturated with both public and private courses, he went on, adding that, to be successful, operations must focus on the total experience and not just 18 holes — although that’s a big part of it. And they have to put all of their facilities to work generating revenue.

This is nothing new, really — it’s always been this way — but in this environment, such diversity takes on heightened importance.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book,” said DiRico. “That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.

“You need food and beverage,” he went on. “That’s a big revenue center. Years ago, many of the courses didn’t have elaborate food and beverage operations; now they’re adding them because they’re so important.”

Elaborating, he said such amenities enable clubs to book more tournaments because they can handle not only the golf but the networking, dinner, and awards presentation that come after — one-stop shopping that tournament organizers desire, and often demand.

Franconia has historically lost some events and been able to handle only the golf side of many tournaments because it didn’t have a facility on site, said Hall, adding that this will change this year with the addition of a large pavilion built late last year.

It’s a simple structure that is not enclosed, but still, it will enable tournament organizers to stage a dinner on site, rather than forcing participants to drive to the nearby Elks lodge or an area restaurant. And Hall said he can already see the impact in the number of events he’s booking this offseason.

“Having that pavilion is going to help us a great deal — we’re really growing that outside tournament business already,” he told BusinessWest. “People are excited about it, and they want to take advantage of it.”

Going for the Green

Looking back on his first 10 years of ownership at Twin Hills, Cardaropoli said a number of factors have contributed to the club’s turnaround.

He listed everything from some good fortune in the form of some private clubs moving to a semi-private format (Crestview and nearby Elmcrest, for example) and some struggles at other clubs, to strict policies at Twin Hills regarding assessments (there are none) and rate structures — the only real deals are given to long-standing members.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book. That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.”

But the real keys have been continuous investments in all aspects of the property, from the course itself to the banquet rooms to other facilities.

Like the pool area, which is currently being expanded to create a larger play area for children, said Cardaropoli, who pointed out the ongoing work while offering his tour.

Meanwhile, on the course, work will start soon on the second and 11th holes — drainage, bunker work, and more — following improvements made last year to the seventh and eighth holes to enlarge the greens, reposition bunkers, and remove dozens of trees, a step taken to help improve drainage and even speed up play.

“Every year, we have a course designer come in and help us renovate the golf course, and every year we end up doing complete renovations on several holes,” he explained. “This past year, we removed 225 trees from the golf course, which makes it a lot healthier and able to dry up quicker after we have rains.”

Ongoing improvements are needed to retain members and attract new ones, he went on, adding that investments in the banquet facilities have also opened the door to additional bookings of weddings and other events, key revenue generators that help enable Twin Hills to avoid the assessments that have plagued other clubs.

And while private clubs are a breed apart in the golf industry, a focus on the customer and providing value are needed at all clubs, said DiRico, who noted, again, that the equation must involve more than just golf.

“To be more successful, clubs have to be more universal in what they provide,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s not just for public golf, but private golf as well. The private clubs have to do a better job of keeping the families there — they have to be value-added facilities, and by that I mean that it’s not just golf anymore.”

But golf is the foundation for most of those other revenue streams, said those we spoke with, so it’s imperative to bring new players into the game. And the obvious focal point is young people, said Hall, adding that the PGA Junior League has enjoyed a great deal of success in this realm.

“You take kids and create teams — in Springfield, we could probably have one to three teams of maybe 12 kids — and you give them practice once a week, and then we set up matches against other clubs,” he explained, adding that the team format and scramble mode of play (everyone goes to where the best shot came down and plays from there) help ease people into a game that is in many ways daunting and even scary.

“You get kids who may be intimidated by golf because they don’t want to play off their own ball or be by themselves, so you play that scramble format and as a team against other kids their age,” Hall went on. “You develop their skills that way, and this is imperative to growing the game.”

Imaginative Strokes

DiRico said that, despite all the rain last year — or maybe in part because of it — he had his best year since he opened his store eight years ago.

He theorizes that people who couldn’t play focused at least some of those energies on buying new equipment and accessories for when they could play. It’s just a theory, and he listed several more solid reasons why business was so good in 2018 and the first three months of 2019.

These include everything from the store’s fitting services — no one should play clubs off the rack anymore — to the hot new drivers that everyone wants.

Whatever the reason, that side of the golf business is apparently holding its own. The rest of it? It’s as challenging as ever, as any club taking the 10-year challenge can attest.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

More History to Write

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt stand in the main ballroom at Wyckoff Country Club, one of its many facilities that have undergone a facelift.

None of the members of the new ownership team at Wyckoff Country Club in Holyoke had spent any time on the golf course — or in the golf business — prior to their acquisition earlier this year.

But they did know a few things about what they were getting into. Actually, more than a few.

They knew how to run a business — Bob VanZandt Sr. has operated American Tire Sales & Service in Springfield for nearly 40 years, and Charlie Arment has been at the helm of Charlie Arment Trucking in Springfield, a 65-year-old family business, since 1978.

Beyond that, well, they knew that there was still some history to be written at Wyckoff, originally known as Mount Tom Country Club, a Donald Ross design that has seen many changes over the decades and, like most all clubs, has suffered greatly in recent years as interest in the game has waned.

Most importantly, the new owners — VanZandt and his wife, Elizabeth, and Arment and his brother, William — who acquired the property from long-time owner Clarence “Clarky” Wojtowicz, understood that the golf business isn’t really the golf business anymore. Instead, it’s the entertainment and hospitality business, with golf as a big part of the equation, and they believe that Wyckoff, after some renovations and additions to the landscape, could certainly thrive in that environment.

“It’s more than the golf here — you have to diversify, which we did,” said VanZandt. “We’ll be able to make it because of the banquet facilities upstairs and downstairs, the kitchen, and the golf shop; it’s an attractive package.”

But it’s a package that needed some work, to be sure, and the new owners are supplementing their original purchase of the property — roughly 120 acres in total —with additional investments in both the course and, especially, the clubhouse, in an effort to capitalize on what they consider an attractive location (just off I-91 roughly halfway between Springfield and Northampton) and a solid foundation on which to build.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away. While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted.”

Elaborating, VanZandt said the course — altered significantly by the construction of I-91 in the mid-’60s — is a hidden gem to many but certainly appreciated by members. Meanwhile, the main banquet facility is one of the largest in the region and can seat 470 for weddings and other events.

“There aren’t many rooms like that in this region — not many places where you can have a wedding or Christmas party or other event and host nearly 500 people,” he noted. “And there’s another room downstairs that holds 130 for bridal showers, brunches, and other events.”

Describing the work done inside to date, VanZandt and Arment said it involves modernizing and improving many of the facilities while also making some needed additions. Regarding the former, VanZandt started with a reference to a hallway on the lower level.

“This was all covered with green wallpaper — I think it was from the ’80s, but it might have been the ’60s; I’m not sure. Anyway, it needed to go,” he said, pointing to the bright white paint on the wall.

Meanwhile, a major renovation of the smaller, lower-level banquet room is underway, replacing wood paneling from several decades ago with a much more modern look. And just off a 19th hole that has been given a minor facelift, work is set to begin on a large patio that will be used by members and event attendees alike.

There are a number of events, said Elizabeth VanZandt, referring to everything from a recent St. Patrick’s Day dinner to planned brunches on Easter and Mother’s Day; from a Friday-night winter concert series to a tradition at Wyckoff known simply as ‘Wednesday Burger Night,’ a name that tells you all you need to know.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

A sign of the times —

A sign of the times — literally; clubs like Wyckoff are now hosting a number of non-golf events to maximize revenues from their various facilities.

Meanwhile, on the course, Charlie Arment Trucking, which has done work on several area golf courses, has started on a number of projects at Wyckoff. Plans call for repairing sand traps, cleaning up ponds, renovating cart paths, clearing overgrown brush and trees, and restoring the ‘Wyckoff Country Club’ sign visible from I-91.

“The course was in pretty tough shape, but we’ve had people out cleaning it and getting it ready,” said Arment, adding that, while there was a soft opening in late March, the course will not be officially open until the end of this month, with the first tournaments scheduled for early May.

Summing up their plans, the new owners said they plan to continue things as they have been for the past 60 years or so — but, as noted, also make some much-needed improvements and additions. They knew considerable work was needed, but wanted to hear from members about what they thought, and received generous amounts of feedback at a meeting early this past winter.

“We asked them what they wanted, and we’re fulfilling what they wanted, and that’s what bringing membership back up,” said VanZandt, adding that the list of requests included everything from much-needed work on the sand traps to new lighting and carpeting in the 19th hole.

Moving forward, the new owners plan to be aggressive in getting the word out about Wyckoff through some targeted marketing, and they said that word-of-mouth marketing has already generated a solid response.

Membership that once exceeded 400 is now closer to 150, and the new owners obviously hope their investments and ongoing work to get the message out will bring that number considerably higher.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away,” Arment said. “While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted. We’re seeing very positive feedback — a lot of past members are very interested in getting involved again.”

If this trend continues, then a course with some rich history can continue adding new chapters to that discourse for decades to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Having a Blast

Kendall Knapik says Hot Brass meets a recognized need in the region for a public shooting range.

Kendall Knapik says Hot Brass meets a recognized need in the region for a public shooting range.

New Businesses like to start off with a bang. Hot Brass in West Springfield has done that laterally — thousands of bangs actually. It’s the only indoor shooting range within a few hours’ drive. And it’s one of two businesses — a gun retail shop called Guns Inc. being the other — operating out of a former auto body shop on Main Street. Thus farm the ventures are on target when it comes to established goals and patterns of growth.

It doesn’t have a nickname. Yet.

They just call it the ‘50-cal.’ That’s short — although not much shorter — for .50 caliber, as in the .50 caliber sniper rifle made by Connecticut-based Bushmaster Firearms.

The BA 50, as it’s called, weighs 30 pounds and is nearly five feet long. It fires — quite loudly — a huge projectile that makes a very large hole in the paper target, and is touted by its maker for its extreme accuracy.

It is now one of the star attractions at the Hot Brass indoor firearm and bow range in West Springfield, a public facility, which opened its doors late last summer.

“It’s very popular — people love firing it,” said Kendall Knapik, manager of this family business, noting that visitors can rent it for $35, plus $10 for every round (the ammunition is expensive) — or fire it just once or twice — and people of all ages and persuasions have done just that. “We have a lot of people come in, rent the 50-cal, and get pictures and video with it, because it’s not often you see one of those.”

The BA 50 is just one element of what has become a large, multi-faceted operation. There are actually two businesses located at once was an auto-body shop on Main Street — Hot Brass, a new venture, and a retail firearms component known as Guns Inc., launched by Knapik’s parents, David and Cheryl Knapik, and formerly operated out of a small storefront farther down Main Street.

“We have a lot of people come in, rent the 50-cal, and get pictures and video with it, because it’s not often you see one of those.”

Within those two ventures, there are many smaller divisions, or revenue streams, if you will, from the indoor firearm and bow ranges to ‘license to carry’ gun-safety courses held every other Sunday; from a growing number of events — there have been several bachelor parties, for example — to the gun sales themselves, which have been steady if not spectacular since Donald Trump was elected president and a huge threat to gun accessibility removed (more on that later).

Together, these many components are meeting or exceeding lofty goals set when the ceremonial ribbon was cut, said Knapik, adding that, overall, the ambitious venture was launched out of perceived need for these various services, and the need has been verified.

“There are several private clubs in this region, but no public ranges,” she explained, adding that this is the only facility that fits this description within a roughly 100-mile radius.

Thus, there are often a variety of license plates seen in the large parking lot, not to mention a very diverse client base, said Knapik, adding that while sport shooting has always been fairly popular, it is becoming much more so, involving men, as it has historically, but now also women, couples, even businesses looking for a new and different way to do some team-building work.

The .50 caliber sniper rifle is a popular attraction at Hot Brass, drawing shooters of all ages.

The .50 caliber sniper rifle is a popular attraction at Hot Brass, drawing shooters of all ages.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people coming in to use the ranges — people of all ages,” she said, adding that the facility has hosted everyone from law-enforcement officials and military veterans to grandmothers starting a new hobby.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked at length with Knapik about this family operation and why it is on target — both literally and figuratively — when it comes to ambitious projections for visitation and overall growth.

Barrels of Fun

Knapik said the vision for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. started to come into focus more than two years ago, and the picture — and the promise — were enough to lure her back to the family business after several years spent living in Manhattan and working in the healthcare field.

That vision was for two symbiotic businesses operating under the same roof that would meet recognized needs within the region, she said.

The symbiotic part is fairly self-explanatory: Those who purchase guns need a place to shoot; meanwhile, those looking to purchase a gun will often try before they buy, and if they try at this range, they only need to walk a few dozen feet to likely find the model they’re looking for.

Indeed, Guns Inc. stocks both new and pre-owned firearms from such brands as Colt, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Ruger, Glock, Remington, Winchester, and Springfield Armory — as in the Springfield, Ill.-based company founded in 1974 to resurrect the most historically significant designs produced at the Armory in Springfield, Mass., such as the M1-Garand, the 1911 A1, and the M14, according to the company’s website.

As for the need part, Knapik noted, again, that there were and are several private ranges operated by sportsmen’s clubs in this area. These are outdoor facilities for the most part and require a membership.

Springfield-based Smith & Wesson operated a public shooting range at its facility on Roosevelt Avenue, but it closed several years ago, said Knapik, adding that, in many respects, Hot Brass fills that void and several others within the marketplace.

Getting the doors open was a massive undertaking — a $4 million investment overall — that involved obtaining not only a special permit from the city, but a mix of renovation and new construction at the former West Side Auto Body.

The new facility features five 50-foot pistol lanes; 10 rifle, shotgun, or pistol lanes that are 90 feet long; and two 61-foot-long archery lanes.

Through the first business quarter of operation, each of the various components of the business have seen a solid response from the buying public, said Knapik, who started with the archery lanes.

While not a hugely popular sport, archery is gaining some traction, she told BusinessWest, adding that Hot Brass offers a place to practice indoors; many practitioners are limited to their backyards, which makes it difficult to practice several months out of the year.

As for the shooting ranges, as noted earlier, they’re attracting diverse audiences, including many law-enforcement officials, individuals, couples (it’s become a popular date-night activity), bachelor parties, groups, and more.

the new location for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. is on target

Four months after opening, the new location for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. is on target when it comes to the many goals set for the twin businesses.

Sport shooting is popular because it’s a form of release, Knapik told BusinessWest, especially at a time when many are burdened by large amounts of stress and need a way to attack it.

“You definitely feel much better after you shoot a little bit — that’s the consensus, anyway,” she said. “People always leave smiling, and they tell us how much better they feel, which is good to hear.”

Many are also leaving with guns, accessories, and clothing from Guns Inc., and, very often, photos of video of themselves, sometimes with the BA 50 and often in front of a ‘Hot Brass’ step-and-repeat erected near the front lobby.

Memberships are available for frequent shooters — and that’s a large constituency — or the range can be rented for $26.50 per hour.

Knapik said there are ongoing discussions about staging competitions at the facility, and that might well happen, but for now, the focus is on keeping the ranges open for visitors, and thus keeping them content.

“You definitely feel much better after you shoot a little bit — that’s the consensus, anyway. People always leave smiling, and they tell us how much better they feel, which is good to hear.”

It’s also on bringing more people and new and different audiences to the facility, she noted. While word-of-mouth referrals have been a large part of the marketing strategy, the company has done some radio and other traditional forms of advertising to get the word out.

As for gun sales at Guns Inc., Knapik said the “hysteria” from the months leading up to the 2016 election has certainly died down. Any by hysteria, she meant anxiety over whether — and for how long — people could buy certain weapons.

With Donald Trump in the White House, such anxiety has dissipated, if not evaporated entirely, slowing gun sales to a considerable degree.

Still, people are buying, as evidenced by the large number of gun shows staged in this region, many of them at the Big E, which is just a mile or so down the street, another factor driving traffic to Hot Brass.

Meanwhile, it’s holiday season, and that brings a number of visitors to the showroom, said Knapik.

“For many people, a gun is a great gift,” she said, adding quickly that, unless one is certain which model and caliber to put under the tree, a gift certificate is in order.

Loaded Questions

With a sticker price of nearly $5,000, it’s safe to say not many people will be finding a gift-wrapped BA 50 waiting for them on Christmas morning.

That’s OK … they can still fire one at Hot Brass, and probably leave, as Knapik said, feeling much better, with a smile on their face, and probably a commemorative photo.

The large gun has become one of many factors contributing to a solid start and promising outlook for this multi-faceted operation.

The Knapik family certainly took their best shot when they doubled down on their business a few years ago, and now, a wide range of visitors can do the same thing.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Changing Lanes

Jeff Bennett says league bowlers and casual players are looking for different amenities

Jeff Bennett says league bowlers and casual players are looking for different amenities, and facilities need to cater to both constituencies.

Jeff Bennett remembers when the Pioneer Valley was home to many more bowling alleys than exist today.

“A lot of mom-and-pop centers started to close. We had a couple around here,” he told BusinessWest. “If you didn’t put in automatic scoring, blacklight bowling, if you didn’t keep the centers updated and clean, with nice bathrooms — well, those are the centers that don’t exist anymore. If you’re going to drop 70 or 100 bucks to go out for the day, are you going to the run-down place, or the place with the upbeat music, lights, and arcade? What’s going to be a more fun atmosphere?”

Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes, said his business, and that of its parent company, Bowlero, which boasts some 300 facilities nationwide, is doing well and still growing year after year, but added that such success doesn’t happen on its own. “We make people want to keep coming back and having fun. That’s what we try to focus on.”

Justin Godfrey agrees. “The important thing is to give them a quality, consistent product and make sure the guest has a memorable experience and wants to come back to your facility,” said the general manager of Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow, which is now part of the Spare Time chain. “That’s really what it boils down to — treating people right and generating return business. Word of mouth is still king when it comes to getting people in the door.”

Those who haven’t been in a bowling alley in decades may be surprised by today’s centers, where they may encounter strobe lights and black lights, disc jockeys and music videos playing on large screens, and freshly made food.

“You get different crowds,” Godfrey said. “You get families more during the day, then at night, we run the light show and get the music going. It’s a different atmosphere from the leagues, which don’t want music. It just depends on the group.”

While there are fewer bowling lanes in operation than even a decade ago, those that are still in business have increasingly turned to a model that’s not just about bowling, Bennett said, touting amenities in Chicopee like food made from scratch, a full liquor license, servers that take orders on the lanes, and more.

“If you’re going to drop 70 or 100 bucks to go out for the day, are you going to the run-down place, or the place with the upbeat music, lights, and arcade? What’s going to be a more fun atmosphere?”

“That’s what casual bowlers are looking for — they’re looking for more atmosphere. They’re not just coming in for 20 minutes to bowl a game and leave. They’re here two or three hours — it’s one-stop entertainment, where they can have food and drinks, bowl, and play some arcade games. We have games geared for kids, and some old-school games for the adults.”

Godfrey said food and beverages can account for 25% or more of a center’s business, so it’s not an afterthought. Neither is the continual effort to introduce more people to the game — and everything that surrounds it these days.

“Before, you could just open your doors and people would come in, and many still do,” he said. “But we’ve really ventured out. We have event planners; we actually have people going out to create business, and that’s been very helpful for a lot of our centers. We do a lot of corporate parties. We work with a high-school gym class twice a week — we bring carpets into the gym classes and introduce kids to the sport. If the kids like it, they say, ‘hey, mom, let’s go bowling.’”

Different Strikes

Bennett said Bowlero has different brands within the company — AMF being just one of them — and centers can be quite different from each other.

“What we term a traditional center is still heavily league-focused, and a lot of that comes from the demographics and what you have around you. We have two centers in Manhattan, and both combined don’t have a league bowler — it’s all events and retail-play driven, and those are the two biggest grossing centers,” he explained.

“But then you have a lot of our traditional centers in the Northeast that still rely on our league base, especially during the fall and winter season,” he added, noting that leagues account for about one-third of total lane use, with between 1,300 and 1,350 league bowlers showing up each week, up to 34 weeks a year.

“We’re still focused on league bowlers — Monday to Friday, we’re busy every night, all 40 lanes. And we have to do certain things for them — regular white lights, and we work on lane conditions that affect their scoring.”

But the company also put a lot of money into amenities that attract non-league bowlers, he added, including a video wall, a new audio-visual system, black lights, and a new arcade.

“On weekends, we focus on the retail or open-play bowler — casual fun for kids and adults,” he said. “We do a ton of kids’ birthday parties and corporate events on the weekends. Over the next month, quite a few businesses are going to do holiday parties. And on weekend nights, it’s mostly adults; on Saturdays between 5 and 1, we’re extremely busy.”

Justin Godfrey says today’s bowlers want a memorable experience — one that often includes more than just bowling.

Justin Godfrey says today’s bowlers want a memorable experience — one that often includes more than just bowling.


At Shaker Bowl, Godfrey has seen a shift in his 18 years there, from a league-centric model to more open bowling for kids, adults, and families. Leagues don’t attract younger people like they used to, he said, and many people don’t want to make the commitment for 30-plus weeks. To counter that reality, he’s offering a 12-week league on Sunday nights to capture interest during the colder months.

But the Spare Time chain — which also has sites in Northampton, Vernon, Conn., and Windsor Locks, Conn. — understands it’s not just about bowling anymore.

“They’re really gearing it toward other entertainment options for the guests,” he said. “In Windsor Locks, which is newly renovated, there are escape rooms, laser tag, a huge arcade, and a restaurant. It’s more of a family entertainment center than your traditional bowling center.”

There are other factors that go into a successful center, he added, from cleanliness to consistent food quality across all sites in a chain. And let’s not forget the game itself, which has been attracting families for generations due to its easy-to-learn, hard-to-master qualities.

“Anyone can do it, and we meet the needs of all age levels, too,” he said. In fact, the day BusinessWest visited, Shaker Bowl was hosting a special-needs group in wheelchairs, bowling off taller metal ramps adapted for them.

“We’ve got ramps for the kids, all different weight balls — we can accommodate people of all ages, sizes, skill levels, everything. I think that’s definitely part of the appeal.”

Something for Everyone

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennett noted, but now there are only a handful. The average age of bowlers at AMF Chicopee Lanes is 25 to 45, and they usually bowl at least once a week. Many are there on weekend nights, when the average age is 25 to 35.

Like Godfrey, he noted that the center offers ramps so people with handicaps can bowl, six-pound balls that can be pushed down the lanes by 3- and 4-year-olds, and bumpers in the gutters to increase their chances of knocking down pins.

“Successful centers nowadays, in most markets, have to cater to everybody and do everything,” Bennett said, noting that AMF Chicopee Lanes hosts myriad junior and adult tournaments, not to mention fund-raising events for organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and many others.

“We need all those types of events to be successful nowadays,” he added. “Springfield has a lot of options, especially with the casino here. We were worried that would affect us a little bit, but there’s been no effect so far.”

In short, business keeps rolling along for bowling centers that understand this changing market, and craft an experience that’s about more than just strikes and spares.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Exit Strategy

Lise Lawrence

Lise Lawrence, in the study where a professor has disappeared — and visitors must learn why.

Escape Games have been growing in popularity across the U.S., but the Pioneer Valley lacked such an attraction until siblings Lise Lawrence and Tom Dahl opened Puzzled Escape Games at Eastworks in 2016. Since then, they’ve offered several levels of challenge to friends, families, and even companies that take advantage of the activity as a team-building experience. And an experience it is — one that can be as tense and unnerving as it is entertaining.

Picture this: you’re on vacation in Mexico, you visit a tequila distillery, drink too much questionable tequila, pass out, and wake up chained to the wall in a Mexican drug lord’s basement. Now, you have to figure out how to get out in just one hour, before he comes back.

That may sound awful, but plenty of people are happily signing up for the experience — well, minus the tequila.

Indeed, that story is the setup of “Escape from Escobar’s,” one of three escape-room experiences at Puzzled Escape Games, which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at Eastworks in Easthampton.

Lise Lawrence, who launched and manages the attraction along with her brother, Tom Dahl, recently gave BusinessWest a glimse of what visitors experience on a daily basis, showing how a group of individuals are handcuffed to the wall in a dungeon set, and can’t reach each other — but each has a different perspective on the rest of the room, and they must work together to figure out how to free themselves, first from their shackles and then from the chamber itself.

“You have to communicate,” she said. “People in the front of the cell can see things the people in the back can’t.”

Lawrence, who has a background in film, and Dahl, an actor and screenwriter, established the first escape room in Western Mass. with the goal of building something different than the typical model of ‘find the clues, escape the room’ — even though there’s plenty of that.

“All these places are fun, but what we really pride ourselves on is storylines and set decoration and experience,” she said. “We want to create that real experience, where the only ones who can get you out are you and your team. If you’re alone, you can’t get out of your handcuffs; you need the other people.”

Of course, a game that starts with the claustrophobic tension of a dungeon and handcuffs might not appeal to everyone, which is why Puzzled offers two other experiences: “Find the Professor of the Occult,” and “The Lost Wand,” which appeals to the younger set.

In the former, players enter a large study lined with bookshelves, a desk, and several other items. “The professor’s gone missing, and his housekeeper heard a loud thunder noise, and she went in to investigate, and he was gone,” Lawrence said. “So you’re a paranormal investigator, and you have to figure out what happened to the missing professor.”

In each case, the scenario is introduced by a ‘game master’ who becomes part of the story before leaving the players to their own devices. “That’s another thing that sets us apart from other escape games, where it’s like, ‘OK, go in there and figure it out.’ The moment you walk in the door, you’re aleady engaged with us.”

In its two-plus years of operation, Puzzled Escape Games has engaged a steady flow of participants looking for a different type of activity. For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talks to Lawrence about why it’s fun for people to exercise their brains in this way — and why they keep coming back, only to be trapped again.

No Simple Escape

Anyone who thinks these games are easy can think again, Lawrence said — about 20% of teams manage to escape Escobar’s dungeon within the hour allotted, and about 30% figure out what happened to the professor and make their way out of his study. For the rest, well, answers are given to those who want them, while others choose to come back and try again.

“Surprisingly, people usually aren’t disappointed,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh man, how far did we get?’ You can come back for half price if you want to play the same room again. Or we show you the rest of the tricks.”

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate the teams who completed the challenge the fastest.

Dahl and a screenwriting friend based in Toronto — he and his wife are also partners at Puzzled — came up with the idea of launching an escape room after visiting several and realizing Western Mass. didn’t have such an attraction.

“They said, ‘we can create an experience without cell phones. We can have people work together and have fun using different parts of their brain,’” Lawrence recalled. “They noticed the biggest thing, when you go to other escape games, is that it’s not heavy on storyline. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of intro. We thought, ‘how could we make it a fully immersive experience?’

“That’s why, when you walk through the door, you’re immediately part of the adventure,” she went on. “The game masters are acting with you. As you’re asking, ‘oh, what does this open?’ and finding clues the puzzle, you’re also learning about what happened to the professor. Why did he disappear in the first place? You’re building the storyline. We have set designers on staff, so we’ve created a theater set, so you feel even more immersed in the experience.”

“The Lost Wand,” which opened in December, caters more to kids with its wizarding-school theme (shades of Harry Potter), but mostly draws adults, just like the other two games. It’s also easier than the other two, with a roughly 80% success rate; when kids play, certain puzzles can be switched out for easier ones, and the pass rate jumps to 100%. A wizard-themed party room adjoining the puzzle room hosts theme birthday parties and other events.

Yet, kids do surprisingly well in the other games as well, Lawrence said, especially “Find the Professor.”

“Funny enough, they do amazing in that room because it’s so academic,” Lawrence said. “I was hosting a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, six of them, and they got out. Kids that age might look for things we might not even think about.”

Still, kids dig “The Lost Wand” for the appeal of sitting in a Potteresque classroom, which sits just beyond a lobby filled with board games, tables, and quirky décor — and that’s part of the experience, too.

“It starts with our lobby. The doors are open, and sometimes people come in just to hang out and play board games,” she explained. “We have our wizarding music playing in the background, we have our fun lights, and this is a great place for people to ramp up and get ready for their game.

“Then,” she added, “the game master comes out and does the intro: ‘this is the Massachusetts Academy of Magic.’ Then the door opens, they enter, and their game experience begins.”

In all three games, teams may ask for up to three clues during the hour when they get stuck. “You agree together you’d like a clue, and you press the doorbell. Monitors are watching through cameras, so we have eyes and ears on you, and we give you the best clue possible.”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand” is packed with games to pass the time while waiting for the main event.

Everyone gets one extra tip in “Find the Professor,” however — the hundreds of gold-colored books lining the long wall of shelves aren’t clues at all, and the game master says as much, to avoid having teams waste time on them.

“We tell people these gold books are just set decorations, and you don’t have to look in them or behind them,” Lawrence said. “Some people are like, ‘no, they lied to us.’ But we just don’t want to waste your time. Trust us, focus on other things around the room.”

You’re in the Picture

Lawrence draws on her experience creating film festivals to craft a much more interactive type of experience at Puzzled, while most of the staff have backgrounds in graphic design, painting, set design, and the like. The window in the “Lost Wand” classroom is a colorful, painted dragon’s head, and it’s illuminated at night, so visitors see it from outside Eastworks.

It’s not just families and groups of friends who take part in the games; companies have visited as team-building exercises, which is an especially good use of “Escape from Escobar’s,” with teamwork absolutely necessary to escape those initial handcuffs. “We really push to get groups and companies that want to have a fun activity that also enhances team building and communication. This is a great room for that.”

As for other visitors, they appreciate a different experience from the usual night out, even though not everyone is sold right away.

“A lot of times, there’s one person that’s dragged in, saying, ‘I would never choose to do this on a night out.’ Those are my favorite customers because they soon realize it’s not what they think. I was one of those. It took me two years before I did one because I didn’t want to get locked in a room; I didn’t want to feel stupid.

“But one moment can change all that,” she went on. “If they’re the one that finds the first clue, all of a sudden they’re part of that team. Now they’re the ones that get excited, like ‘wow, I had no idea that was going to happen.’ Most people walk out happy. This isn’t for everybody, but it’s for most.”

Because two of the games require at least four players, sometimes strangers are tossed together, depending on who shows up and when. “Those groups usually have the highest escape rate because there’s different minds in there all working together,” Lawrence said.

It’s fun to make progress on the puzzles, she added, even if the end result isn’t a timely escape — and, hopefully, it’s fun mixed with actual thrills. “In Escobar’s, people start thinking, ‘what if I really went on vacation and this happened?’ It’s freaky. People sweat because it gets intense.”

What she hasn’t sweated is launching a startup with Dahl, even after both had heard it’s not a good idea to be, well, handcuffed to one’s sibling in a business venture. But they’re close and get along well, she said.

“We both went to the performing-arts high school in Hadley, so we’re local, and it’s nice to create something artistic and bring something back to our community,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s literally the basis — how can we provide a fun, immersive experience for people? It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. That’s why we do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Upwardly Mobile

By Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport for both the physical challenge and the welcoming community.
Photos by Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says that, increasingly, individuals young and old are looking for outlets that are both mentally and physically challenging — a tough combination to come by.

Perhaps that difficult search for such an activity is why more people are turning to indoor rock climbing as either a fun activity or a competitive sport. It could also be because climbing offers individuals an opportunity to see some incredible places around the world. Or maybe, it’s because of the truly welcoming people that belong to the climbing community.

Skirkey, general manager of Central Rock Gym in Hadley, believes the the answer is, well, all of the above.

“Indoor climbing is great because you can do it in any type of weather, and the community here is amazing,” said Skirkey, who told BusinessWest that the Hadley location is ideally situated in many respects.

For starters, it’s within a few hours — or even a few minutes — of some challenging and thus popular climbing spots. Meanwhile, it’s situated in the middle of the Five College area — and perhaps 40,000 college students, who make up a large percentage of the growing climbing community.

Actually, Hadley is the second location for Central Rock Gym, or CRG, as it’s called. The company was founded by brothers Ed and Joe Hardy, who decided to bring their love for climbing to their hometown of Worcester, and opened their first location there in 2009. Hadley followed just two years later.

Today, there are nine CRG locations spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, and four more locations are set to open very soon. According to CRG’s website, a location in Manhattan will be opening this summer; another Bay State location, in Stoneham, will open in September; and two facilities, in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. will be debuting in November. In less than a decade, this business has grown from one facility to 13.

This profound growth reflects the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing — again, as both a recreational activity and competitive sport — in Western Mass. and across the country, for that matter.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

And the Hadley facility is, in essence, a microcosm of this phenomenon, said Skirkey, referencing everything from the wide age disparity of CRG members — they range from 3 to 90 or so — to the way families are embracing the sport as a unit.

For this issue and its focus on sports and recreation, BusinessWest talked with Skirkey at length about rock climbing, CRG and its Hadley facility, and why the climbing community continues its torrid pace of growth.

Scaling Up the Business

Located at 165 Russell St., CRG’s Hadley facility is a short drive from some of the top climbing destinations in this region, including the White Mountains, making it the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers to train and have fun. There are also many local crags in the Western Mass. area, including Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mormon Hollow in Wendell State Forest, and the Skinner area in Hadley.

“There’s a lot of outdoor climbing specifically in Western Mass. compared to other parts of the state,” said Skirkey, who has enjoyed climbing for most of her life.

She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2010 and was the president of the UMass Outing Club (UMOC) where she enjoyed “fun — what some people call crazy — activities” with friends who had the same interest and excitement as she did for various outdoor hobbies. UMOC is a UMass Amherst registered student organization that organizes outdoor trips to both local and distant areas, taking part in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and everything in between. Aside from being the president, Skirkey was also a hiking/backpacking and whitewater kayaking leader for UMOC.

Although she never imagined herself being a climbing-gym manager, Skirkey knew she wanted to be somewhere with like-minded individuals who enjoy being active as much as she does. And CRG is the perfect fit.

“It’s not a normal office job,” she said. “Being a part of the community is great here.”

A passion for those ‘crazy’ activities is one of the things Skirkey loves about the outdoor community. Making friends is easy, she explained, when everyone in a community loves to do a specific thing together — in this case, indoor rock climbing.

After graduation, Skirkey heard the gym was opening a location in Hadley, so she applied. She got a job as a desk staff member, and a year later moved on to assistant manager. She continued to climb — literally and figuratively — and eventually became general manager at Central Rock’s Hadley location.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

As noted earlier, Skirkey is not the only college student drawn to the gym’s facilities. Students from the Five Colleges — UMass Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College — and many more schools in the Western Mass. area visit CRG to climb. Skirkey said she also sees students from Springfield College visiting the facility.

She noted that people who enjoy outdoor climbing come to CRG to train indoors on days and seasons when outdoor climbing is not feasible because the rocks get wet, or it’s just too cold outside.

“We’re between two and three-ish hours from other, bigger destinations, and then we also have a bunch of local crags people can go out to,” she explained.

CRG upgraded its Hadley location in December 2017. The original 12,400-square-foot facility was expanded to 26,000 square feet. This expansion added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface, 200 linear feet of new bouldering walls, and 24 top-rope stations on a new climbing-wall product. An additional 80 parking spaces were also created. The project expanded the fitness room to 2,100 square feet and nearly tripled the size of the yoga room, extending it to 900 square feet.

CRG holds daily fitness and yoga classes, Skirkey explained, adding that the expansion has brought a new level of service to the membership and guests they bring — and helped increase the ranks of both.

“We just felt like we were in this bubble that we needed to help grow,” she said. “People love bringing their friends here; it’s really nice to be able to accommodate that just a little bit better now.”

When planning the expansion, CRG looked at the busiest areas of the gym, as well as what needed to be improved in terms of spacing. Bouldering is a popular climbing activity that needs a quicker turnover rate, said Skirkey. There are several other types of climbing that a person at any skill level can do when visiting CRG.

Ascending Order

Skirkey described CRG as a very welcoming and community-oriented company, and noted that one of the most common things she hears in reviews is how friendly the staff is. No matter what age or skill level, anyone who walks through the doors is welcomed with open arms.

“It’s really easy to get into it and feel welcomed,” said Skirkey. “I don’t think you get that with most gyms.”

This welcoming effect has contributed to the growth of membership and the wide diversity within it, she noted, adding that the gym’s youngest climbing club ranges from ages 3 to 6 years old. Skirkey also noted that families often come in to enjoy climbing together, a much different family activity than most experiences.

Aside from the standard membership, which costs $85 a month, CRG also has a family plan for these families who love climbing together. The membership includes two people who are engaged or married, or two parents and their dependent children, for $125 a month. Those who want to add additional family members can do so for $30 a month.

Skirkey believes that climbing can help family members bond with each other.

“It’s nice for parents, too, because they can do something active with their kids,” she noted. “Especially for young kids, it’s critical to get into something that makes them feel strong. I think that’s really important for development.”

Climbers have two main options at CRG: bouldering and what’s known as top roping. Bouldering is climbing that a person can undertake after a brief orientation given by a staff member. This specific type of climbing is a free climb on a wall about 15 feet tall.

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface to Central Rock Gym’s Hadley facility.

The other climb, top roping, is highly recommended for those who are new to the sport. Here, the climber is tied onto one end of the rope, and a supporting climber, known as a belayer, is connected to the other side, making sure the rope stays tight so the climber does not fall.

In order to start top roping at CRG, climbers must take a one-hour introductory class to learn how to belay properly. If a person is not interested in learning how to belay, they can schedule a staff belay in which the staff member belays while the customer climbs. In order to belay, a climber must be 13 years or older.

The intro belay class is $20 per person but free for members, and typically lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. During this class, the climber will learn knots, the belay process, and safety procedures practiced at CRG. The staff belay costs $30 an hour per climber. Both the intro belay class and the staff belay require reservations and are only offered at certain times during the week.

“I would say that roped climbing is a bit more beginner-friendly than bouldering is,” said Skirkey. “You’ve got a staff person when you do staff belay, and you’ve got a rope to catch you when you fall. The way that bouldering is … the type of movements are usually a bit more power-oriented.”

There are, of course, varying skill levels of climbing, and some people coming in are going to be far more advanced than others. CRG offers many options for beginners to help them adjust and start their climbing journey, and also has state-of-the-art facilities for more advanced climbers. Aside from the intro and staff belay classes, customers can also schedule a private lesson with a staff member to help them learn the ins and outs of climbing one-on-one. In the “Technique 101” class, climbers who are interested in learning some basic tips can sign up to improve their climbing skills.

Members ages 6 to 18 at Central Rock Gym may also form both competitive and non-competitive climbing teams to help gear up for competitions, or just for fun. In the past, CRG has sent several members to the Nationals run by USA Climbing. Skirkey says members have done exceptionally well at these competitions, and have even placed in third and sixth place. This year, the gym has six kids going to Nationals.

CRG offers plenty of options for climbers of different skill levels. The gym also offers day passes and discounted memberships for climbers 22 and under or 65 and older, and active military members.

Another characteristic that helps CRG stand out from other climbing gyms is the cleanliness and openness of the building itself, Skirkey said. Climbers will use chalk on their hands to help their grip as they climb the walls, and things can get dirty quickly.

“We dedicate a lot of our time to cleaning and making sure the facility has clean air to breathe and nice lighting,” she said. “A lot of climbing gyms can feel like dungeons.”

But not Central Rock Gym. Each facility, including the one in Hadley, has large glass windows that let in plenty of natural light, making the experience for climbers even more enjoyable.

She noted that CRG even connects people who do different outdoor activities. Sometimes, people who enjoy mountain biking or hiking will come in wanting to try climbing, and end up expanding their circle of friends. CRG is definitely a place that attracts the outdoorsy type, she added.

Due to the rising popularity, Skirkey recommends making a reservation, especially if a person lives far away from the gym.

Reaching New Heights

Summing up the many rewards offered by climbing, Skirkey said that, for those dedicated to this sport, it’s not all about getting to the top, although that’s a big part of it.

It’s also about the journey. Indeed, figuring out how to make your way to the top, step by step, is the best part, she told BusinessWest.

“I love it because it’s fun to try to figure out how to finish a climb and challenge yourself both mentally and physically,” she added.

From her perspective, those twin challenges go a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of climbing and the upward trajectory of CRG and especially its Hadley location.

And the best part is, they can both go much higher still.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Game On

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

The first weeks of spring — not spring in name only, like the bouts of snow and 20-degree weather that dotted late March and early April this year, but actual spring weather — typically send weekend warriors, after a long winter indoors, scurrying for their golf clubs and tennis rackets.

And sometimes, they’re a little too enthusiastic.

“We see a lot of that this time of year — golfers getting the clubs out, only to develop back pain. But we also see hockey players from the over-40 league come in with all kinds of injuries,” said Dr. Scott Cooper, one of the managing partners of Pioneer Spine and Sports Physicians (PSSP), the largest private physiatry practice in the Northeast.

“I had one guy who was probably in his mid-50s, and he had recurrent tennis elbow, and I could not get him to stay off the court,” Cooper told BusinessWest. “I treated him for probably six months for tennis elbow, and I don’t think he ever missed a match — whereas, if he was on a team, I could tell his coach, and his coach would say, ‘you’re going to sit out two weeks until this thing clears up.’ Sometimes the weekend warriors can be determined.”

Cooper and his team should know, seeing a broad range of patients every day, from high-school and college athletes nursing knee and shoulder injuries to the inpatient clients PSSP manages in acute-care settings like Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital and Bronson Rehabilitation, recovering from spinal-cord injuries, neurologic conditions, and amputations.

Physiatry, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a specific type of practice, he explained, but one with a wide range of applications.

“One of the nice things about physiatry is it’s a very broad specialty, and one of our primary goals is to provide state-of-the-art care in all facets of physiatry,” Cooper explained.

That includes the acute rehab setting at Weldon and Bronson, where Pioneer treats people who have conditions that cause a loss of function, so they can’t return home, but no longer need to be in a medical/surgical unit of the hospital.

“These are people who have had strokes, for example, or spinal-cord injuries or head injuries or complex medical conditions or amputations or other neurologic conditions like multiple sclerosis or ALS — things that cause them to lose function, but they’re now medically stable so they can tolerate rehabilitation.

“We manage those patients, and we’re also involved in pain management, both acute pain and chronic pain, in all our offices,” he added, adding that the practice’s physiatrists also deal with spinal conditions, back pain, herniated disks, pinched nerves, and much more. “We have procedure suites in most of our offices where we can do X-ray guided procedures on people’s spinal conditions, and we are also involved with the Surgery Center of New England; we do procedures there that are not office-based, things that are a little bit more invasive and require anesthesia.”

In short, it’s a one-stop shop for a host of conditions, with one goal in mind — to return patients to the highest function possible — in both their work and play.

The Sporting Life

That ‘play’ factor — sports medicine — is a niche PSSP is well-known for, and around 90% of sports injuries require no surgery at all, Cooper noted.

“If they do require surgical treatment, we work closely with some of the orthopedists in the area who provide those services. But for the other conditions, we’re able to treat them very effectively, and we do that with a lot of recreational athletes, weekend warriors, and we also work with several of the high schools in the area.”

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

Pioneer also provides team doctors for area colleges including Springfield College, American International College, and Westfield State University, both during and between games.

“For example, hockey and football are the two main ones where they need to have someone on the sidelines according to the rules of their conference, so we provide game coverage in case of an injury during the game,” he explained. Meanwhile, if an athlete is injured in practice, they’re seen in a PSSP office as soon as possible.

“We recognize that one tenet of physiatry is quick return to function,” he said. “So we focus on getting athletes in quickly, diagnosing their condition, treating them, and returning them to the field as quickly as is safe.”

They take the same approach to occupational medicine, working with client businesses — Pioneer has a therapist at MassMutual full-time, for example — on job-site injury prevention and treatment. “We focus on them just the same way we focus on athletes — get them in quickly, diagnose their condition, determine what they can and can’t do in a rapid manner, and treat them comprehensively so they can return to full function.”

While about 70% of all occupational injuries involve the spine, that’s not the case with athletes, Cooper noted. “They have a whole different set of issues. The majority of what we see with athletes involve the knee or the shoulder. And most of those we treat non-operatively. We establish a diagnosis, and if that diagnosis requires a surgical evaluation, we facilitate that, and the surgeons we work with are very accommodating and allow us to get that done very quickly.”

Beyond treatment, though, the team at Pioneer emphasizes prevention. As an example, its physical therapists attended an educational program, developed at Syracuse University, that works to prevent ACL injuries in female athletes, who have a much higher predilection to those injuries than men.

“It’s almost an epidemic,” Cooper said. “Some of the reasons are unclear, but female soccer players and lacrosse players, will come in with ACL injuries, and once you have that kind of injury, it can be devastating, and it generally does require surgery, and requires a long course of rehabilitation.

“So this program has been shown to prevent those injuries,” he went on, explaining that Pioneer’s PTs were certified through the week-long course to teach a group of specific exercises to area sports teams, who come in during the preseason for a week of intensive training, and then continue on a regular basis. The exercises focus on stabilizing the knee and have been shown to prevent injuries.

“That’s one way we try to head off injuries and reduce their likelihood,” he added. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to eliminate them.”

No Slowing Down

That goes for young athletes and older weekend warriors, who often arrive at PSSP with a combination of a sports injury and something more degenerative, such as an arthritic condition.

“It’s something they can normally get by with, but if somebody with an arthritic shoulder is doing OK, but he goes and plays some tennis, now he’s got a rotator-cuff problem. The springtime is definitely a big time for those types of injury, but we see them year-round. And sometimes they can be the hardest to treat because these people are very determined to get back out there.”

With America’s senior population surging, Cooper’s team sees patients from that age group as well.

“We’re definitely seeing an older population that is increasingly active, but we encourage that; we want our patients to be active. There’s good data in the medical community that one of the ways to increase longevity and reduce morbidity in the population as a whole is to have an active lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of the mottos in his profession is that “physiatry adds years to life, and life to years.”

“That’s the idea — we want people to stay active, and it almost doesn’t matter what activity; we want them to engage in exercise, and when they do that, they may encounter some injuries and have some problems, and we’re here to address that.”

Because injuries are often an inevitable speed bump in an active lifestyle, he went on, it’s encouraging that treatments have evolved to allow people to return to full activity much sooner than before.

“Injuries that once may have been considered incompatible with continued competition, we now see as being treatable — and treatable with less-invasive means,” he said. “That can be anything from tendinitis to things like arthritis. In fact, arthritis of the knees is something that used to be, ‘you can take Advil, or you can have a knee replacement’; there wasn’t a whole lot else you could do for it.”

Now, however, physiatrists may tackle the issue with anything from orthotics to new types of bracing; from new exercise methods to injections that go far beyond what traditional cortisone could achieve. “So there are definitely more options to treat those conditions with different means that don’t necessaily require surgery, and allow people to be more active.”

It helps, he said, that Pioneer provides a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, holistic model of care, where physiatrists, physical therapists, and other team members work together and consult with each other on troublesome conditions. If a patient with a spine injury isn’t progressing quickly enough or has too much pain, the providers aren’t afraid to work together to find a solution.

“Basically, anything that’s needed to treat the conditions we treat, we have under one roof,” Cooper said. “We have specialized nerve testing, guys who focus on different areas … we have all kinds of talent and skill to bear.

“I think that really serves to benefit the patient,” he went on, “because they’re not just getting one doctor and one opinion; they’re getting a team approach. I think that is unusual in a private-practice setting, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful.”

Bottom Line

When asked what he enjoys about his job, Cooper paused for a moment and smiled.

“We think we have the best specialty in the world,” he said. “Whether I’m treating an 80-year-old patient with a stroke or an amputation or I’m treating a 16-year-old with a sports injury, I’m working with people who want to be here, who want to be treated, who have definite goals. And it’s very satisfying when they reach those goals.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]