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Where Art and Nature Collide

 

Richard Richardson

Richard Richardson told BusinessWest destiny played a big role in his work.

Richard Richardson, creator and caretaker of the Three Sisters Sanctuary in Goshen, likes to say that he has built his own world in what he called a ‘snow globe.’

“I live in a snow globe; I built the snow globe, I designed the snow globe, and I’m not done with the snow globe yet — this is the magic of it all,” said the philosophical and quite colorful Richardson. “Somehow I’m gifted enough to take nature and work with it to see it come to maturity in such a magical way out there.”

But the snow globe is not his alone. Indeed, it has become a popular stop for day trippers and others. It is a place to stop, reflect, take in beauty of various kinds, and, in many cases, grieve the loss of a loved one — which is where, in many ways, this fascination starts.

The Three Sisters Sanctuary sits on 3,500 acres of protected mixed forest and wetlands. When walking down the winding paths, guests will encounter standing stones, small and large rock cairns, classic statuary, bejeweled beings, and other whimsical creations.

Cozy pockets along the trail invite visitors to stop and take it all in. It has been described, appropriately enough, as a place where art and nature come together.

Within and around the gardens are multiple art exhibits of sculpture, glass, metal, mosaics, found and repurposed items, and other materials. But each exhibit mainly focuses on its natural surroundings; most projects are composed of large stones, like “The Kiss,” but some projects include other natural materials like wood, such as “The Conception.” Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the sanctuary’s gardens is a giant dragon head made of stone, metal and glass; it is most known for breathing fire.

All of this has been derived from the vivid imagination and artistic mind of Richardson, who said he landed in “the land of Goshen” — a rural community northwest of Northampton about 30 years ago in a bread van when driving through for a job. Richardson said he opened the door, looked out, and instantly thought “if I could live anywhere, this would be it.”

The fire-breathing dragon

The fire-breathing dragon is just one of many works of art to capture the imagination at the Three Sisters Sanctuary.

And in three years’ time, he bought the land that the sanctuary currently sits on.

“Destiny played a major role in my life. This is the only house I ever thought of buying,” said Richardson. “It was very clear to me that when I purchased this piece of property, I didn’t know then that I had arrived. Where I was going to go from there, I didn’t know, but I had arrived.”

Years later, the sanctuary was created, but as gardens. Richardson’s brother was an avid gardener and close friend to him; he suggested to Richardson that he gardened to help grow through his grief.

“In the last year of his life, he said to me in order to deal with grief, he’d like to install three gardens with me. Each will be a perennial garden,” explained Richardson. “His hopes were that when the plants started to come back and he was gone, that I would continue to love, nurture, and care for these gardens.”

He went on to explain how his brother considered himself an annual, his life cycle was complete after death. The gardens were perennials, coming back each year to remind him that nature has a plan to help heal the soul.

Seven years later, Richardson found himself in a rut. He had been gardening, but they had become much more elaborate than he anticipated. He compared his gardens to English gardens — “well composed and too proper.”

“I had the reality check of realizing that my personality is one that could go much further than I ever thought I could go,” said Richardson. “And after seven years, I looked at my gardens and thought I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I had to be really committed to these gardens until I figured it out.”

Then his mindset changed: he wanted to hardscape. Hardscaping is another word for landscaping, but defines what an environmental artist truly is. They work with stone, trees, flowers, and the landscape to create something beautiful.

His first hardscape piece was a fire pit and waterfall to the right of his deck. He explained to BusinessWest that it was the first project he’s done that took control of itself. He usually plans ahead, and sets out a purpose for his pieces, but once he started building this feature, it kept dictating what it wanted to do next.

“It was a major piece because I didn’t know what or why I was building it,” he explained. “It allowed me to trust myself and it allowed me to realize that when you have an intuition, that overrides everything else. And that’s what was going on; I had intuition on what I was doing.”

Grief had led him to gardening and hardscaping once again — this piece became the final resting spot for his oldest daughter, Tina. He said he didn’t understand the meaning behind his first piece and to just spontaneously throw himself into a year and a half project speaks to the willingness to see where it would take him. Richardson said he was willing to see where the art would take him.

And that is how he came up with the name, Three Sisters Sanctuary. After the loss of his oldest daughter, he named the gardens to represent the bond of his three daughters: Tina, Sara, and Megan.

All three women were born and raised on the land now dedicated to the sanctuary. Richardson said that they have always “encouraged and contributed to the ever-evolving outdoor healing space since the beginning.”

 

Leave Your Baggage at the Door

Starting a new art piece means being in the trenches for three to 10 years, fully immersing himself in his art, Richardson told BusinessWest. One of those projects is his famous ‘Fyre Dragon.’

“The project had a funny feel to it because the dragon was so intriguing; it was so wonderful to build something like that — I mean come on, who gets the chance to build a dragon in their lifetime?” he asked rhetorically. “Especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, which is half the attraction to my art. I generally build things with the belief that I was meant to do it — I was meant to build that dragon.”

After the dragon was finished, he said that he was concerned that his work was finished. It was hard to look up when it felt like the end seemed so far. Richardson said it reminded him of the Frank Sinatra song, Is That All There Is? He was worried it wouldn’t hold the magic he anticipated, but the community proved him wrong.

Over the past 20 years, visitors have left trinkets and old toys surrounding the dragon head along the rock wall. “No matter where the eye draws you, there is another tiny piece of plastic to remind us all we’re still human,” Richardson told BusinessWest, “I get as much enjoyment going in and visiting all those characters as I did building it.”

Once a week, Richardson gets “dolled up,” and becomes this character he calls “Little Dapper Dad,” and purposefully looks for new trinkets and knickknacks visitors have left behind. A popular item to be found around the dragon’s trinket wall are little turtles that always seem to appear.

“If you were to go in and really study it, you’ll find the turtles; they’re a big deal. Don’t ask me where they’re coming from, don’t ask me what they’re about,” said Richardson. “I just know that the turtles play a big part in the dragon’s life — so do prayer cards, and people who just want to go in and say goodbye; they want to let go of something.”

He explains that the trinkets are often left by adults, not children. They have usually been to the sanctuary before and have had some time to think and process what to leave behind the next time they visit. The trinkets are more than just trinkets, he said — they’re a piece of the past.

When talking to visitors, Richardson urges them to leave their baggage at the entrance.

“Let the magic be in the moment so that you can really leave and say to yourself ‘wow that was an experience; that’s something I want to share,” he explained. “That’s something I want to come back to.’”

The sanctuary is a beautiful chaos that creates balance within itself. Each hardscape project allows not only the visitor to let go, but the artist himself. This was a place of closure, but also somewhere to watch something else bloom.

The sanctuary helped Richardson become the artist he is today. He worked on the sanctuary for 15 years before deciding he wanted to wear the artist hat.

“I like being an artist — it’s like being a rock ‘n’ roll star; it’s the same damn thing. I can wear the clothes and the flash, and I have the hair,” he said. “And I work it, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star all in the comfort of my back yard. The hardest part has been that I’ve made the conscious decision to share it with the public. I knew all along that once I opened Pandora’s box, I couldn’t close it.”

And with the pandemic, he has found he is sharing it with even people.

Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic, indoor gatherings were prohibited and people across this area and beyond found themselves looking for things to do outdoors, away from other people.

For many, a trip to the sanctuary filled that void. It was a safe destination, and one that enabled them to find some peace, quiet, art, gardens, and plenty to reflect on.

“When other people didn’t have outdoor events, it started to bring more traffic here; I can already see how much it’s changed things,” said Richardson, adding that with inflation and a looming recession, he is trying to come up with new ideas and events to include in the peaceful walk through the sanctuary.

“The humor in this is I have dyslexia, so everything I do is done ass backwards. So naturally, when I built the sanctuary, I built it ass backwards,” he said with a laugh. “Right now, I’m finally building a section for live events and workshops on the remaining two acres of land that I have. It’ll be separated from the sanctuary — so if there’s 100 people here for a workshop, they won’t be mingling with the other 100 people here to visit the sanctuary. They’re completely separate.” He is also planning on setting up a section for pop up tents if events or workshops run late, a fairy cottage where other artists can promote their work, and an airbnb at the sanctuary.

 

 

Art of the Matter

Summing up what the sanctuary has become, Richardson said that he has loved the land of Goshen so much that he allowed the rest of the world in, and he admits that it hasn’t always been easy.

“I’m one of those rare artists that don’t put on a show — the show goes on 24/7. People either love what I do or they don’t. But they do love it,” he said. “It’s like I’m Mr. Popular over here. I’m having way too much fun with my life and the character I’m living and the things I’ve created.”

In other words, life in the snow globe keeps changing. And, as he said, that’s the best part.

 

Sports & Leisure

Stressing the Fundamentals

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E,

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, announces plans for Hooplandia at a press conference staged last month.

Mark Rivers acknowledged that a lot of things have changed since he and officials at the Big E and the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame first announced that the region would host a giant three-on-three basketball tournament to be called Hooplandia.

Indeed, that announcement came late in 2019, just a few months before the arrival of COVID-19, which would eventually cancel large-scale events of all kinds and put plans for Hooplandia on ice — for 2020, 2021, and then 2022.

But what hasn’t changed, said Rivers, a marketing and programming consultant to the Eastern States Exposition who has also worked with the Hall of Fame on tournaments, is that what he calls the ‘fundamentals’ are still in place.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane. So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region.”

“Three-on-three basketball is still very, very popular, and Springfield is the birthplace of basketball,” he told BusinessWest, as he explained, succinctly and effectively, why those who conceived Hooplandia are still bullish on this concept and are proceeding with a tournament set for late June 2023.

If anything, conditions are even better, he said, noting that three-on-three basketball has only become more popular as a sport — and a competition (more on that later).

John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, agreed, noting that, while it might have been easy to walk away from the event given all the challenges and uncertainty moving forward, the vast potential of the concept led them to stay the course.

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest announced Hooplandia. That was just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down the state and put Hooplandia on ice for what will be three years.

“Everyone stayed with it, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. “To have all those entities — the Big E, the city of West Springfield, Mark Rivers — step up and be as committed, if not more, after a couple of years is a very positive thing.

“Everything is lined up for a great event,” he went on. “It just took a little longer to get there.”

In fact, it will be roughly four years from the date it was first conceptualized until the whistle that starts the first game on June 23, 2023. But everyone involved is sure it will be worth the wait.

Turning back the clock, Rivers said planning for Hooplandia began in early 2019. Inspired by a huge tournament in Spokane, Wash. called Hooptown USA that brings tens of thousands of people to that city every June, Rivers conceived of a concept that would unite the Big E and the Hall of Fame in an endeavor that would capitalize on the soaring popularity of three-on-three basketball and bring the game to the area where the sport was invented.

The March 2, 2020 issue of BusinessWest featured Doleva and Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, standing on either side of a poster promoting Hooplandia. The headline read: “Nothing but Net: Hooplandia Has the Makings of a Legacy Event.”

Just a few weeks later, the state was in lockdown. A few months later, it was clear to everyone that there would be no Hooplandia in 2020. And as the pandemic persisted and subsequent surges continued to hit the nation and the region, the tournament was scrapped for 2021 as well.

And while the situation improved somewhat that year — enough for the Big E to make a much-anticipated comeback after being idled for 2020 — there were too many uncertainties and not enough time to put a tournament in place for 2022, Rivers said.

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball at the press conference announcing the Hooplandia event set for June, 2023.

“We thought we could do it in 2021, but there was still a lot of overhang related to crowd gathering and big events,” he said. “And with Hooplandia, you need almost a year’s run-up, because you open up registration six months prior and mobilize your whole organization, and we couldn’t predict what June 2021 was going to look like. Then, we get into 2021, and we just didn’t have enough time to get it organized for ’22; and once you commit, you commit, and we were fearful about putting a lot of time and resources into this and having to pull the plug again.”

But through all of that, no one involved in Hooplandia had any thoughts of giving up on this concept.

That’s because of those fundamentals, he went on, adding that what was true in those early days of 2020 remains true today — Hooplandia does have the makings of a legacy event.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane,” Rivers explained. “So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region. It’s not like three-on-three basketball went away or Springfield is no longer the birthplace of the game. Those things didn’t change.”

Essentially, organizers are picking up where they left off, said Cassidy, with expectations that the 2023 event will draw 1,000 or more teams (4,000 players) across a number of categories — from youths to veterans; from those in wheelchairs to what would be considered professionals in this sport — and that it will grow over time to draw several thousand teams and someday rival Spokane’s event in terms of size and prestige.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

The original plan was to mobilize the grounds of the Eastern States, play a handful of games at the Hall of Fame, have both organizations work together on marketing and promoting the event, and conduct some outreach to basketball organizations and teams throughout the Northeast, Rivers said. And, by and large, that is still the plan.

If anything, he went on, three-on-three basketball is probably even more popular than it was when Hooplandia was first conceived.

“It’s now an Olympic sport, it’s now an international sport with national teams representing their countries in international play, and there’s more and more tournaments around the country that are focusing on this caliber of basketball,” he explained. “So it’s become a little more common, and I think we have a great opportunity to be a leader in that segment.”

Doleva agreed.

“No one has stepped back from that, and I guess that’s the big thing,” he said. “No one has said, ‘let’s do this on a 25% scale.’ It’s all hands on deck.”

Elaborating, he said local organizers have Spokane as a target, with a goal of seeing Hooplandia approach and even exceed that scale when it comes to everything from the number of participating teams to the impact on the local economy.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy,” Doleva told BusinessWest. “To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

Hooplandia will actually be staged the same weekend as the festival in Spokane, but organizers don’t see it as competition for that event.

“We’re 3,000 miles away,” Doleva said. “We see this an opportunity for people from the Midwest east to come to Springfield and play in a tournament where they might not have gone all the way to the West Coast — and you have the allure of the Hall of Fame.”

These are more of the fundamentals that prompted organizers to take Hooplandia from the drawing board to reality more than three years ago. And they are the fundamentals that have prompted them to stay the course — and stay on course — through more whitewater than anyone could have imagined in early March 2020.

As Cassidy told BusinessWest and all those assembled at a recent press conference to announce the new date for the tournament, “it’s game on for 2023!”

 

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

Sports & Leisure

The Sound of Music

 

Bryan Lynch performs at the 2021 Jazz Festival in Northampton.

Bryan Lynch performs at the 2021 Jazz Festival in Northampton.

Ruth Griggs is a firm believer in the power of jazz.

She says this brand of music has the ability to energize people and lift their spirits. It also has the ability to bring people, and a community together, said Griggs, who had seen this phenomenon at work in Northampton during the early years of its annual jazz festival.

And she also saw what was missing when the festival took a three-year pause toward the end of the last decade, and that’s why she became instrumental — that’s an industry term — in not only bringing the festival back to Northampton in 2018, but bringing it to more of Northampton, meaning more venues across this thriving arts community.

In fact, she was honored earlier this year by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers award for her efforts to bring the jazz festival back to the Northampton — and the region.

“Live music helps lift people’s spirits and it just gives them a positive feeling; these are professional musicians, they know what they’re doing, and it’s a real pleasure for the audience to be able to experience that,” said Griggs, adding that there will be plenty to experience at the 2022 Northampton Jazz Festival set for Sept. 1-Oct. 1.

A number of local and regional artists are scheduled to perform, she said.

“On Friday night, we have what we call the Jazz Strut, held at Pulaski Park and six different breweries and restaurants, throughout downtown; there is free jazz at these establishments all night long,” said Griggs, listing venues ranging from the the park to the Northampton Brewery; from Spoleto to the Wurst Haus.

“Jazz Fest Day will be on Saturday,” she went on. “World-class musicians are playing at no charge to the public. They’ll be playing in a variety of venues in and around Pulaski Park this year.”

The main stage act, the Ron Carter Quartet, will play at the Academy of Music on Saturday. It is the one paid performance; patrons are required to buy tickets online before the show, she said, adding that ticket sales are on a record pace.

The Northampton Jazz Festival was started in 2011 by a group of enthusiasts who were looking for something to replace the “Taste of Northampton” as a way to bring people — and energy — to the streets of Northampton. The festival was staged in the Armory Street Parking Lot and had a five-year run before losing steam.

After a three-year absence, momentum started to build to bring the festival back, with Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, taking the lead.

“Amy had come to me in 2017 and said ‘people are talking about this jazz festival. I’m not too familiar with it, but they are really looking for live jazz downtown. Is there any way it could be brought back?’ said Griggs. “And, long story short, with Amy’s impetus, we brought it back.”

Griggs told BusinessWest that the weather for the end of September can be hit or miss, but otherwise it is a perfect weekend for the festival, with little else on the calendar to compete with the event. She is predicting large crowds and large amounts of energy.

“The festival adds a sense of vitality and energy, like things are happening here, and that’s so important after what we’ve been through with COVID,” said Griggs. “It’s important for people to see there is creativity and artistry that’s happening in Northampton that is accessible, participial, and professional. It’s good music. We’re really happy to be a part of that for people that live here as well as for people that are coming in from out of the area.”

Indeed, not only is the festival creating a stronger sense of community, but it is drawing people into the city. Griggs told BusinessWest that with the increased number of ticket sales, she anticipates a higher volume of visitors this year.

“Maybe they (tourists) have known about Northampton or have stopped in once or twice; maybe they haven’t stopped into the city before, but I hope that when people stumble across this jazz festival, they are just absolutely delighted by it. I just hope to bring more people to Northampton than we ever have before.”

Cover Story Sports & Leisure

Looking Sharp

Anneliese Townsend

Anneliese Townsend

 

“Never attempt to catch an axe.”

That’s one of a handful of rules printed above the targets in each of the 12 lanes at the Agawam Axe House. And while that’s just good common sense, said Anneliese Townsend, founder and co-owner of this intriguing business, this reminder is there for a reason.

“You would think that would be pretty obvious, but, in fact, it’s a natural instinct to put your foot out and try to stop something coming at you, so we have to remind people that it’s an axe,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, since she opened the doors in January 2018, no one has tried to catch an axe.

But many have tried to throw one.

Indeed, this unique enterprise, said to be the first of its kind in New England, the only one in Western Mass., and one of just six currently operating in the state, has seen, well, a sharp rise in interest since it opened, and the numbers — of both participants and revenue — continue to grow.

The venue has welcomed a wide range of constituencies, from companies large and small that are looking for a new and different kind of team-building exercise (a large contingent from LEGO was in recently) to birthday, bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (axe throwing has become popular among women, as we’ll see); from leagues that compete weekly to individuals, many of them professionals, who are looking to blow off a little steam and rid themselves of some stress.

There are many days when Townsend will see all of the above.

“It’s absolutely massive, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said of the sport of axe throwing, which she was introduced to while on a trip to Montreal with her boyfriend (and now business partner), Bob Manning.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’” she recalled, “and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

the Burn Battle

The Agawam Axe House hosts a number of leagues and fund-raising events, such as the Burn Battle, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants in last year’s ‘battle’ are seen here. The 2022 edition is set for Oct. 2.

They went to such a facility, but because they were with Manning’s children, they could not partake — it was an over-18 activity, and for obvious reasons. But Townsend was certainly intrigued, and upon returning to Western Mass., she did another Google search, this one to find axe-throwing venues near Agawam.

The closest one she found was in New Jersey. Instead of driving there, this entrepreneur — she’s been involved with an ice-cream shop and some other ventures in this community — eventually decided to open her own facility.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’ and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

And from the day it opened, it’s been a hit. Or, as participants in this activity might say in this sport, it has stuck.

Business is brisk, and as the sport gets more exposure — from ESPN 8 or from the many who have already tried it — Townsend expects it will only continue to grow in popularity.

When people try it, they find that it’s not nearly as hard as it might look, and it has become a proven stress reliever — at a time when many are having issues with stress, for one reason or another.

“We have a lot of doctors from Noble Hospital [in Westfield] who come in,” she said. “They’re the most stressed people out there.”

This writer tried it, and, after a few throws to get a feel for it and stop trying to ‘flick the axe,’ as Townsend put it, managed to stick a few. Hundreds of other people have done the same, and that’s why Agawam Axe House is more than on target with its business projections.

For this issues and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with Townsend about the sport — and business — of axe throwing, and why she believes this is anything but a fad.

 

Gaining an Edge

When asked about axe throwing, or hatchet throwing, which is a more accurate description of the implement being used, as a leisure activity, Townsend described it as “a Canadian thing,” meaning that is where it started and is perhaps most popular.

She said urban axe throwing became a sport — and a business — in 2007 with the opening of Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, founded by Matt Wilson. It has grown from there, and there are now hundreds of venues across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, with more opening their doors every year.

Indeed, Townsend, a native of Australia whose parents still live there, said she keeps urging them to open an axe-throwing business in Sidney. They haven’t, but others have, much to her consternation.

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House show off their axes, and their enthusiasm for the increasingly popular sport.

There are now actually two bodies governing the sport and promoting it on a global scale — the International Axe Throwing Federation (IATF), which the Agawam Axe House operates under, and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

Overall, the sport is catching on at many levels, everything from tournaments, including the U.S. Open, staged by the WATL — which took place in July in Minneapolis, with the finals airing on ESPN — and the International Axe Throwing Championship, which took place in June, to amateurs picking up the sport in places like the Agawam Axe House.

As for the business of axe throwing … getting off the ground was relatively easy, said Townsend, explaining that she acquired the location, secured the necessary permits (a liquor license was sought initially but not granted), and found insurance — a necessary but expensive item in this business sector, to be sure — through a company in Chicago that specializes in writing policies for axe-throwing establishments.

And, as noted, things got off to a fast start, and the company quickly built up some momentum.

But COVID brought things to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, as it prompted the closing of all indoor sports facilities, said Townsend, adding that she and Manning eventually gained permission from the town to operate a few lanes outdoors, enabling the business to survive until restrictions were fully lifted in the spring of 2021.

Since then, business has been steady, with healthy amounts of new and repeat business, with both being vital to the success of any sports-related business.

Visitors to the Axe House, which now also boasts ‘foot bowling’ — bowling with a football — can use ‘house’ axes or bring their own, although it must meet certain specifications, especially with the size of the head and the material for the handle; it must be wood to control the amount of bounceback.

Many who partake, especially those in leagues, do own their own axes, which typically run for $80 to $90 — much more than a hatchet off the shelf at a hardware store would cost — and some go for as much as $200 to $300, with customized handles.

“That’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

But otherwise, the sport is very affordable, with lanes renting for $25 per hour, per person.

Townsend said axe throwing is growing in popularity for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it really is much easier than people think and doesn’t take any real strength, agility, or athletic ability in order to excel. It’s been called the ‘great equalizer’ by one facility owner interviewed by USA Today. And Townsend agreed with that assessment.

“The reason many people don’t try it is because they assume you have to be strong, you have to be able to throw it fast, you have to have some throwing ability,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than one could imagine; people come in every day and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ and four or five throws later, they’re sticking it.

“It’s all about where you stand — I can make anyone stick it,” she went on, adding that instruction for first-timers is part of the package. “And that’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

What’s more, you can do this yourself or in groups of all kinds — leagues, a gathering of co-workers, those bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (Townsend had two of them scheduled for the approaching weekend when she talked with BusinessWest), and fundraising events.

These include the upcoming Burn Battle, the second annual women’s tournament, slated for Oct. 2, that will raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

“Girls from all over New England and far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia come and throw and compete,” she said, adding that one of the bigger surprises thus far is how popular the Axe House, and the sport, has become with women. She estimates that perhaps 65% of customers are women. She’s not exactly sure why, although she has some theories.

“I think many women know that this is women-owned; the assumption, when you hear ‘axe throwing,’ is that it’s going to be a gentleman teaching you how to throw axes. I think that women find out it’s me, because I’ve been on the radio a few times, they’re much more comfortable coming in and trying it out,” she said. “Also, it’s an outlet — for everybody, not just women.”

Looking ahead, Townsend said there are no immediate plans to add additional locations or expand beyond Agawam. The immediate focus is on growing the business there and continuing to build the customer base by promoting the sport in any way she can.

 

All You Could Axe For

As for some of those other posted rules, they include “never run with an axe,” “no trick shots,” and “do not hold the axe by the blade.”

There is another rule — participants must wear close-toed shoes (again, for obvious reasons). Some show up not aware of this stipulation, said Townsend, adding that the Axe House has shoes (Crocs, actually) for rent.

“We call them shoes of shame, for obvious reasons — you weren’t smart enough to wear close-toed shoes throwing sharp objects,” she joked, adding that fewer people have to rent them these days, yet another sign that people are becoming aware of this activity and what it’s all about.

Suffice it to say this business venture is paying off, and that participants are not only sticking it, but sticking with it.

 

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

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Big E announced Thursday that its food lineup for 2022 includes a number of new offering, including flame-grilled vegan options, sweet apple fries, bubble tea, noodle bowls, brunch options and more.

The line-up of new options includes:

 

New Locations

SoulFully, on New England Avenue: 100% vegan, flame grilled burgers, grilled hot dogs, loaded fries, and milkshakes;

Cha Feo, Young Building: various milk teas, boba teas and Thai teas;

Riceballs Arancini, East Road: beef, veggie, big mac, Philly, Italiano riceballs, Arancini;

Ferrindino Maple Farm, Better Living Center: maple cotton candy and maple cream;

Bakery on Brewer, New England Ave.: apple, apple bacon, blueberry and pumpkin fritters;

Sassys Sweet Potatoes, East Road: roasted root veggies, sweet potato tacos, sweet potato bread, sweet potato pie and Southwest sweet potatoes;

The Happy Dough Co., West Road: apple fries and apple fry sundaes;

Villa of Lebanon, Young Building: baba ganoush, baklava, kofta kabobs, falafel, hummus, kataif, kunapa, meat pies, spinach pie and tabouli

BoardWok Noodles, The Front Porch (Inside Gate 5): yakisoba noodles and rice bowls

The Place 2 Be, The Front Porch: breakfast all day: mini fruity pebble/berries and cream pancakes, Mini Nutella and coconut pancakes and milkshakes topped with waffles and pancakes;

Las Kangris Food Truck, Young Building: yellow rice with pigeon peas, baked pork, baked chicken, green bananas “al mojo,” and seafood salad;

Kulfi Ice Cream Taste of Persia, Food Court: Kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream;

Frankie’s Famous Italian Frozen Lemonade, Young Building: Springfield’s iconic lemon Italian ice;

  

Chick-Fil-A, Springfield Road: chicken sandwiches, wraps and more

The West Side Grille Cider Garden, sponsored by Downeast Cider – Outside the Young Building: a selection of Downeast craft ciders Original Blend and Cider Donut in cans and on draft brewed in Boston; and

Ann Maries Candies, West Road: old fashioned candies, fudge and nuts.

Oldies with New Offerings

The Big E Bakery: For 2022, it introduces an exciting new flavor cream puff, chocolate;

Harpoon Beer Hall, located on New England Avenue will be debuting a completely revamped menu of pretzels including the Oh that’s Sweet pretzel coated in cinnamon sugar crust served with warm caramel dipping sauce;

Chompers on New England Avenue will feature a new chicken pot pie chomper, crunchy balls with chicken, potatoes, veggies, mozzarella and cheddar cheese with a roasted chicken gravy dipping sauce.

Visit TheBigE.com to see a complete list of new food offerings.

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SPRINGFIELD — MOSSO Brass Quintet will perform a free concert on September 4, at 3 p.m. at the historic White Church in Blandford. The performance is sponsored by the Recording Industry’s Music Performance Trust Fund.

The MOSSO Brass Quintet features Gerald Serfass and John Charles Thomas on trumpet, Lauren Winter on horn, Scott Cranston on trombone, and Stephen Perry on tuba. According to Perry, the program, which will be announced from the stage, will include classics by Bach, Brahms and Copland; pops and jazz by Ellington, Strayhorn and Lennon/McCartney. Perry added that the program is family-friendly and will last approximately 75 minutes.

MOSSO, which recently named Maestro Kevin Rhodes as its artistic advisor, is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization and is not a subsidiary of nor affiliated with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra Inc. MOSSO has presented four orchestral concerts at Springfield Symphony Hall, a series of chamber ensemble concerts in Springfield, Longmeadow and at the Westfield Athenaeum, and participated in the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival.

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SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival will this year be staged over two days, August 12 and 13, with a broad mix of music, arts activities, talks on arts, culture, and social justice, local pop-up craft, food and beverages.

The internationally heralded festival is the city’s premier annual event, featuring national stars and local talent playing jazz, blues, funk, Latin, and African music. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. This year’s full musical line-up can be found at springfieldjazzfest.com.

The festival will also offer a sneak peek (or an unveiling depending on its progress) of the iconic Worthington Street Mural project celebrating Springfield history. The mural is being painstakingly restored by Springfield artist John Simpson who has studied old photographs of the building’s wall in an effort to accurately recreate as much of the original mural as possible.

Musical performances on August 12 feature Shor’ty Billups, a soul and R&B living legend who played with Ruth Brown, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Jackie Wilson, and Wilson Pickett among others. Also performing are valley legends FAT with Peter Newland and their special guest Scott Murawski from Max Creek, Valley blues/rock icon Mitch Chakour (who was Joe Cocker’s music director) and friends, popular Valley blues rockers The Buddy McEarns Band, and soulful blues belter Janet Ryan and her band.

The festivities on August 13 commence at 12:30 at the Springfield Museum with a parade led by the New Orleans celebrated second-line ensemble The New Breed Brass Band starting from the Wood Museum of Springfield History, where attendees will have free access to the ‘Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville’ exhibit. The parade will end at the stage for the kick-off performance. The complete Saturday performer line-up can be seen at springfieldjazzfest.com.

In addition to the musical performances, the multi-faceted festival will feature various arts activities and presentations and workshops. Puerto Rican jazz trombonist William Cepeda will lead a workshop about traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music on August 12 at 5 p.m., at the Hispanic American Library. Cuban jazz vocalist, Dayme Arocena, will lead a workshop about traditional Afro-Cuban music at the festival on August 13. Attendees can also participate in a mural paint party (separate mural project from the one on Friday) and a presentation by Puerto Rican mural artist Betsy Casanas, and conversations connecting arts with food and climate justice.

The annual festival is presented by Blues To Green, a nonprofit, using music and art to center the cultures of the African diaspora within American culture, nurture personal freedom, strengthen multicultural community, and catalyze action for racial and climate justice. Inspired by famed musician Charles Neville and founded by his wife, B2G is led by Black Springfield community leaders. Learn more about Blues to Green and how the festival helps achieve social change at bluestogreen.org.

This festival is made possible by a grant from Springfield’s Neighborhood Economic Recovery and Relief Fund, other grant funders and local business sponsors, and donors.

 

In addition to the musical performances, the multi-faceted festival will feature various arts activities and presentations and workshops. Puerto Rican jazz trombonist William Cepeda will lead a workshop about traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music on August 12 at 5 p.m., at the Hispanic American Library. Cuban jazz vocalist, Dayme Arocena, will lead a workshop about traditional Afro-Cuban music at the festival on August 13. Attendees can also participate in a mural paint party (separate mural project from the one on Friday) and a presentation by Puerto Rican mural artist Betsy Casanas, and conversations connecting arts with food and climate justice.

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SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds were recognized for their business excellence in a variety of departments at last month’s AHL Team Business Meetings.

For their season-long #WeAre413 campaign, the Thunderbirds organization took home the league award for Marketing Campaign of the Year. The Thunderbirds returned to the ice in 2021 after opting out of the 2020-21 shortened season. This campaign messaging’s goal was to speak to the pride felt by each and every resident of the greater Western Mass region, as well as the longstanding hockey history of the city.

This marks the second time the Thunderbirds have been recognized for having the Marketing Campaign of the Year. The club also received the award following the 2018-19 season for its #RiseUp campaign.

#WeAre413 got underway with the team’s return to the ice on Oct. 16, with legendary NHL broadcast voice Mike “Doc” Emrick narrating the journey the Thunderbirds and the Springfield community experienced to get back on the ice. The full video can be viewed here.

“We wanted to establish a campaign that would speak to the rallying of our community for our triumphant return to play in 2021-22,” said Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa. “#WeAre413 showcased our fans’ passion for hockey and our players’ shared goal of bringing the Calder Cup back to Springfield. By the time the Calder Cup Finals arrived, Springfield was the center of the AHL world thanks to the unwavering support of this community. This award further validates our belief that Springfield is one of the best hockey cities in this league.”

In addition to the Marketing Campaign of the Year, the Thunderbirds achieved a pair of milestones in both the ticket sales and corporate sales departments. As part of the award recognition at the Team Business Meetings, AHL member clubs that hit benchmarks pertaining to tickets sold and corporate sponsorship revenue were honored.

The ticket sales team received honors for reaching 600 new full season equivalents (FSEs) during the 2021-22 season, where one FSE equates to one

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NORTH ADAMS Last month, BFAIR staged its First Annual Summer Kick-Off Festival, which that raised more than $31,000. With support from 34 sponsors and 28 in-kind donations from local businesses, the agency able to offer a fun-filled day full of the musical stylings of Code Blue Duo, food from Adams Mason Food Truck, two mini-golf courses as part of the BFAIR-Way Mini Golf Tournament, and 15 games and activities. In total, more than $3,000 in prizes and raffles were distributed.

“Our first Summer Kick-Off Festival was an amazing way to get back into in-person events and further share the BFAIRmission with the greater community,” said Tara Jacobsen, Fundraising & Grants Manager. “Support that we receive through events like the Summer Kick-Off Festival and with other fundraising activities, helps us to provide essential and individualized care to persons with developmental disabilities, autism, and acquired brain injury. We are so grateful to all our generous sponsors for making this event possible, the volunteers who donated their time, and to all the guests who came out to the event. We are already gearing up for next year.”

Since 1994, BFAIR has been providing AFC, residential, in-home clinical services, employment and day services for adults and children with developmental disabilities, acquired brain injury and autism.

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SPRINGFIELD — After a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19, The Zoo in Forest Park is bringing back its popular Brew at The Zoo, presented by PDC Inc., on Aug. 6 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The 21+ event features beer samples from local craft breweries, a home brew competition, food trucks, live music, games, a raffle, and animal interactions.

“We haven’t been able to host Brew at the Zoo since 2019, and we’ve really missed it,” said Sarah Tsitso, executive director at The Zoo in Forest Park. “This event brings together our incredible craft beer community, who all come out to support the 225 animals that call our zoo their home.”

Attendees can choose from four ticket types: VIP, VIP Designated Driver, General Admission and Designated Driver. Attendees with a VIP ticket will enjoy an extra hour of sampling beginning at 12 p.m., the opportunity to participate in up-close animal encounters, and grain to feed the animals. All attendees must be 21+.

The current list of breweries attending the event include Loophole Brewing, One Way Brewing, Vanished Valley Brewing Co., Broad Brook Brewing Company, Connecticut Valley Brewing Company, Berkshire Brewing Company, Rustic Brewing Company, Iron Duke Brewing, Two Weeks Notice Brewing Company, Brew Practitioners and New City Brewery, in addition to nine home brewers.

The Zoo will be closed to the public on Aug. 6. Advanced tickets are required to attend this event and IDs will be checked at the door. Tickets are limited and on sale now at www.forestparkzoo.org/brew.

For more information, contact Gabry Tyson at (413) 733-2251 ext. 5 or [email protected]

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SPRINGFIELD — The historic grounds of Springfield Armory National Historic Site is once again the stage this summer for live music.
On July 16 at 6 p.m., the Bad News Jazz and Blues Orchestraled by Jeff Gavioli,  will perform. The Bad News Jazz and Blues Orchestra is a 19-piece orchestra that has been performing since 2012, playing swing music from the 1930s and 1940s.

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NORTHAMPTON — HONEY, a recreational cannabis dispensary, located in the former home of Sierra Grille, will stage its grand opening on July 9 at 1 p.m.

Visitors can enjoy all day music, fresh popped kettle corn, and performances by the local hula hoopers, wing dancers, stilt walkers, and aerialists. There will be a fire performance at 8:30 p.m.

HONEY is owned and operated by Volkan Polatol and Kevin Perrier. In opening HONEY Northampton, Polatol and Perrier have teamed up with HONEY Brands, originally founded in California, which produces full spectrum, distilled cannabis oil in vape cartridges.

“We are thrilled to partner with the HONEY brand,” Perrier said. “It’s telltale black-and-gold packaging has become synonymous with the best cannabis hash oil on the market today. And now, consumers on the East Coast can try it for themselves. We’re also proud to be able to make the HONEY hash oils from our own facility at Wemelco Industries in Easthampton.”

In addition to HONEY vapes, the dispensary also carries the highest-testing flower and a huge selection of brands from across the state. The location’s innovative LED tunnel, color-changing displays, and chill playlist all create a relaxed, club vibe, and budtenders are on hand to give expert advice on all products.

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AMHERST — UMass Amherst has received a $10 million, five-year award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEWVEC).

The UMass-based center is one in a group of regional centers of excellence designated by the CDC to reduce the risk of vector-borne diseases – such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus – spread by ticks, mosquitoes and other blood-sucking arthropods across the U.S.

Stephen Rich, vector-borne disease expert and professor of microbiology, is the principal investigator on the project and will serve as the executive director of NEWVEC, whose three-pronged mission will integrate applied research, training and community of practice to prevent and reduce tick- and mosquito-borne diseases in New England. NEWVEC aims to bring together academic communities, public health practitioners and residents and visitors across the Northeast.

“We’re really excited about building this community of practice and embracing all the stakeholders in the region who need to know how to do things like reduce ticks and mosquitoes on school properties and public spaces. It is also important to inform the public on best practices to keep ticks and mosquitoes from biting people and their pets,” Rich said. “Part of that mission entails training public health entomologists — undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D.-level students — who are going to be the next generation of people confronting these challenges.”

Infectious disease epidemiologist Andrew Lover, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, will serve as deputy director of the center, with co-principal investigator Guang Xu at UMass Amherst, and co-principal investigators at Northern Vermont University, the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island and Western Connecticut State University.

“This center fills a critical gap in responses to vector-borne disease in the region,” said Lover, who aims to apply his prior work with regional malaria elimination programs to build strong networks across the Northeast region. “As pathogens and vectors don’t pay attention to borders, coordination across states is essential for public health response. Among other things, we’ll develop practical public health tools to understand how and where people are most likely to interact with ticks, which will then allow for well-targeted and efficient health programs.”

His lab also will provide technical assistance to directly support local health practitioners in optimizing vector surveillance strategies and designing operational research to improve program effectiveness.

Xu, research professor of microbiology, will be responsible for the center’s pathogen testing core and will conduct applied research in the evaluation of tick suppression approaches.

Rich notes that blood-sucking ticks transmit more vector-borne diseases than any other arthropod in North America, accounting for some 400,000 cases of Lyme disease alone every year. “And at least a half-dozen other pathogens are associated with the blacklegged tick,” commonly known as the deer tick, he adds. “It’s kind of a silent epidemic.”

The researchers say it’s critical to attack the problem on all fronts by using applied research projects to reduce tick populations and optimize personal protection and control products, and by training public health students and workers, as well as individuals.

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SPRINGFIELD — In preparation for Star Spangled Springfield on Monday, the Springfield Police Department will be detouring traffic in and around the area of the Memorial Bridge and Riverfront Park where festivities will be held this weekend.

On Sunday, at 11 p.m., the Memorial Bridge will close to all traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, to allow for the set-up of the Star Spangled Springfield fireworks display. The bridge will open again around 11p.m. on Monday.

At around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, the Springfield Police Department will begin to close roads in the vicinity of the Memorial Bridge in anticipation of the 9:30 p.m. fireworks display. Massachusetts State Police will close Exit 5 (formerly Exit 7) off of I-91 South as needed. Pedestrians will be restricted from sitting on I-91 Exit Ramps.

For public safety, the Springfield Police Department will enforce no pets, alcohol, smoking, bicycles, skateboards, rollerblades, fireworks, sparklers, and drones in and around Riverfront Park.

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SPRINGFIELD — MOSSO, the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, will celebrate the film music of John Williams on July 21, at 7:30 PM in Springfield Symphony Hall. MOSSO will perform excerpts from Williams’ scores to ET, Schindler’s List, Superman, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and more. Some popular classics, including Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville, Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite open the program.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes was music director and conductor of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra for 20 seasons before the pandemic. He returned to Springfield to conduct his musicians last October in front of a packed house at Symphony Hall, featuring many musical highlights from his tenure as their music director.

Rhodes was recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Slovak National Opera and Ballet in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. In this role he will have a leading artistic position in a European city noted for its cultural diversity, while he continues to serve as music director for the Traverse Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, and as principal conductor of Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.

Rhodes has been a presence in the major musical capitals of Europe for over 25 years, with credits including The Paris Opera, The Vienna State Opera, The Berlin State Opera, La Scala of Milan, The Dutch National Ballet, The Verona Ballet, The Stuttgart Ballet, and many others.

Tickets for the concert, a MOSSO benefit, are priced at $60, $45, $25, and $10, and are on sale at: SpringfieldSymphonyMusicians.com. MOSSO sponsors include BusinessWest and Healthcare News, the Republican/MassLive, WWLP-22News & the CW Springfield, the Sheraton Springfield at Monarch Place, New England Public Media, and the Bolduc Schuster Foundation.

MOSSO is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, which is not a subsidiary of nor affiliated with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra Inc.

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AMHERST — The Amherst Business Improvement District has announced the lineup for the second annual Friday Night Summer Concert Series on the South Common. The series is sponsored by Encharter Insurance.

On July 22, the BID presents local artists Dawn Lepere and Jeff Starns opening for blues singer-songwriter Eric Lee (LINK). On July 29, UMass will return to the Common for the second year of Jazz in July in downtown Amherst, an event featuring UMass staff, students, and a couple of ‘ringers.’ On August 5, the Grammy-winning Children’s performer MISTER G will take the stage before The Soul Magnets appear. Wrapping up the series on August 12 will be the classic country act the Rosie Porter Trio, followed by the pop-rock Maxxtones.

These events will be free for all, starting at 6 p.m. These evenings will also host local brewery White Lion Brewing, local cider makers Artifact, and Black Birch Vineyards wine for the over-21 guests. Crème Bru.LA will be joining the fun, and there will have a charcuterie station.

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SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Union Station is again hosting a music video of The Star-Spangled Banner sung by local talent Vanessa Ford, who is known as “The Songstress of Springfield.” Also this 4th of July, is a music video by Kayla Staley, a student at the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts.

Staley performs America the Beautiful in her video, which also includes interior drone video of historic Springfield Union Station.

The videos were planned, recorded and produced by Darcy Young and Mary Cate Mannion, both of whom are producers at New England Corporate Video, a division of GCAi Digital PR and Marketing. GCAi will run both videos for Springfield Union Station on its Social Media channels starting on July 1, and they will run through July 4.

“The 4th of July is very special for all of us in Springfield, and Union Station wanted to add to the celebration,” said Nicole Sweeney, property manager for Springfield Union Station. “Vanessa and Kayla are local treasures.”

Ford began singing in the church choir at the age of seven, and she loves every genre of music. She is an aficionado of classical music, jazz, pop, traditional hymns, and contemporary gospel music. She has performed the National Anthem for many local college sporting events, at Springfield Police Academy Graduations, and for a multitude of high-profile local and national events.

Staley is a 2022 graduate of Springfield’s Conservatory of the Arts and has been singing since she was 12. She enjoys singing at retirement communities and other public venues.

Sports & Leisure

Not Quite the Real Thing

Jay Nomakeo

Jay Nomakeo, seen here at a simulator he rents out at the Hadley Golf Center, says simulation is booming, and he is confident that current growth patterns will continue.

 

It might be early April, but Jay Nomakeo is already looking forward to November.

That’s because he’s making serious investments — and some inroads — in an emerging subsector of the broad golf business — simulation.

Nomakeo, a serial golf entrepreneur, if you will, is renting space at the Hadley Golf Center, a recreational facility that boasts everything from a driving range to batting cages to a maze, where he operates four simulators that are rented out to individuals, small groups, and even high school and college golf teams for everything from practicing to playing Pebble Beach — sort of.

The simulators provide a way for golfers to keep at their game during the winter months, and for facilities like the Hadley Golf Center, as well as area courses and golf shops, to earn needed revenue during the slow season.

Many area private and semi-private clubs now boast simulators, which provide additional revenue in some cases, but, more importantly, another way to provide value to members who have a number of choices when it comes to which club to join. Meanwhile, a golf-simulation facility called Top Golf has become part of the retail lineup at MGM Springfield, although the facility closed down during COVID and has yet to reopen.

It’s still an emerging business, but it’s catching on, said Nomakeo, noting that bookings were very solid this past winter, and time was often hard to secure, with the simulators in Hadley rented out to individuals, leagues, students, and faculty from nearby colleges, groups from area country clubs, and more.

“All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

“During the winter, it’s crazy,” he told BusinessWest, adding that most enthusiasts are playing courses, with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews the two favorites. “We sold out every weekend. There was one weekend where we were sold out, but I still got 21 calls during one day looking for times. Simulated golf has just exploded; I’ve seen reports showing that it’s growing 45% a year.”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf Shop in West Springfield, agreed.

“We have a mixed bag — we have guys who just want to practice, so we sell a practice session for the year, where they’ll come in for half-hours at a time; they’ll hit their whole bag of clubs and get their yardages,” he said. “And we have guys who come in who like to play 18 holes with their buddies. We have college teams that rent them all the time; some of their bigger schools have their own, but the smaller ones do not, so they come in and rent ours.

“They’re booked pretty solid — Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, you need a week to 10 days out to book them,” he went on. “But we noticed this winter that our simulators have been sold every day, every hour, almost every minute. All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

DiRico’s store has several simulators, used for practice, playing any of 18 different courses, and also for the fitting of clubs, an additional use that puts the simulators to work for more of the year, which makes his operation different from most others.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says his simulators are used for everything from playing courses like Pebble Beach to getting fitted for new clubs.

This advantage is important, he said, because simulators, while an important addition to the game and the business, have their limitations, especially when it comes to the calendar.

Indeed, whenever they have the choice, golfers will prefer to practice and play outdoors, which means Nomakeo and others are heading into what is definitely their slow season.

“Some people will still use them during the warmer months, but, for the most part, once April 1 hits and you can see green grass on the golf course, people are going outdoors; they’re not staying indoors,” DiRico said. “The business dries up very quickly.”

“With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Still, despite these obvious limitations, Nomakeo and others are seeing solid opportunities and enough months of business to warrant additional investments.

Indeed, Nomakeo is partnering with others to bring four new simulators to the MCU Center, a multi-sport facility in Agawam located in a old department store. There are two there now, which will be sold, with new models to arrive by the start of the next simulation season.

“We’re hoping to open November 1,” he said, adding that he fully anticipates this emerging business within the golf sector to continue growing and enable this investment to pay for itself in just a few years. “Just a few years ago, golf was declining, but since COVID … I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s absolutely crazy, and simulation is growing at an even greater rate.”

 

— George O’Brien

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Still on a Roll

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

The game of golf — and the business of golf — has enjoyed a resurgence since the start of the pandemic, with many people picking up the game or returning to it after pausing for one of many reasons. As the new season begins, there is optimism that the momentum gained will carry over into 2022, with an understanding that there are many challenges — from workforce issues and rising prices for just about everything to the very real possibility of a golf-ball shortage — that will have to be overcome.

As the 2022 golf season commences — earlier than what would be considered normal at many facilities — those operating courses are, to borrow language from the game, looking at both scoring opportunities and some potentially heavy rough.

Indeed, as courses across the region start to welcome players to their first tees — some have actually been open for weeks now — they are looking optimistically toward building off some pandemic-generated momentum for a sport (and a business) that was in the tall grass and struggling on many levels just a few years ago.

When the pandemic closed many indoor (and some outdoor) options when it came to sports and recreation, golf became an attractive alternative in the late spring and summer of 2020, and many of those who took up the game or returned to it after pausing for one of many reasons stayed with it in 2021, said Dan Burak, manager of a number of area commercial properties, who added Tekoa Country Club in Westfield to his portfolio in 2009.

“The golf side of the business has been phenomenal the past few years,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the banquet side of the ledger has not recovered as quickly, but there are many positive signs there for 2022, which we’ll get to later. “We were almost too busy on the golf side. We had to say no to a lot of people and tell them that there were just no tee times available. We hated to say no, but it was a good problem to have.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem says some courses posted record years in 2021 as golf witnessed a resurgence, and he and others expect that momentum to carry into 2022.

Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., said courses across the state have seen significant increases in play over the past two years, with many of them recording record years in 2021, despite frequent rain that closed facilities for several days during the season.

“Last year saw a continuation of the demand, the increased level of interest and activity, from the latter part of 2020, the second half of that year,” he said. “It was really encouraging in terms of tee sheets being very full, merchandise sales being through the roof, and, in some cases, hitting some record numbers — membership levels being high, wait lists at many private clubs that had not experienced that in the past years … across the board, those trends are really solid.”

Looking ahead, course owners, managers, and pros alike are expecting those patterns to continue into 2022. But despite this generally upbeat outlook, there are many formidable challenges to overcome. These include everything from workforce issues — golf operations are in the same boat as almost all businesses in the broad recreation and hospitality category — to simply stocking golf balls in the pro shop; from sharp increases in the price of everything, from gas to food to fertilizer, to deciding how much of these increases can be passed on to the consumer.

The workforce crisis is being handled the same way it is in other sectors — by increasing wages when necessary and casting a wide net when it comes to recruitment, said Mike Fontaine, general manager of the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, a muncipally owned, semi-private facility.

“We’re trying to staff up, like everyone else, and the price of staffing is at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “And we have to be creative with how we go about handling that; we’re getting more applicants, which is positive, but it’s still a challenge.”

As for supply matters, they were certainly an issue in 2021, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon, as we’ll see, with course operators struggling to secure everything from mowers to golf gloves.

Meanwhile, and for all those reasons listed above, those who have taken up the game, returned to it, or kept with it all along will find playing a round to be expensive in 2022. The only question is how much more expensive.

“It’s inevitable,” said Menachem, citing the rising cost of practically everything needed to operate a course, from labor to weed killer. He added quickly, though, that while courses must account for the rising prices they’re facing, they have to be careful not to price out those who are discovering golf — or rediscovering it, as the case may be.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at what promises to be another solid year for the industry, but also the many challenges lurking down the fairway.

‘Hole’sale Improvement

Flashing back to the spring of 2020, Burak said it was a curious, challenging time for course owners and managers.

First, courses were allowed to open, and then they were ordered to close, even as many other states allowed them to operate. Then, when they were allowed to reopen, they couldn’t operate their restaurants or even allow customers to use the restrooms in the pro shop.

Courses adapted to the new landscape, and so did players, said Burak, noting that, with the 19th hole closed and players unable to buy alcohol at the course, many adopted a BYOB strategy.

And upon learning that this is a much cheaper option than buying at the course, many kept with that strategy even after the restrictions were limited.

Mike Fontaine

Mike Fontaine says that, while the golf business has been solid, there are stern challenges to be met, including workforce issues.

“When we opened the clubhouse … they were already in the habit of stopping at the package store and getting their beer there,” he said. “Some are a little more flagrant about it, with a cooler that’s visible, but some get very creative. It’s a problem.”

Overall, trying to police those players who ignore the large signs informing them that coolers are prohibited is just one of many challenges facing course owners and operators as the new season begins, and probably one of the minor ones.

The list of bigger concerns starts with workforce matters. Indeed, while Burak said he has had relatively good luck on that front, securing an adequate supply of workers for the course, the kitchen, and the ballroom in 2021, Menachem noted that most course operators were not as fortunate. And the forecast for 2022 is for more of the same.

“It’s a challenge, not only in our industry, but in many others in service, to support operations and fill out your staff for what’s needed to support a consistent and solid operation,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the challenges are not just with jobs at the lower end of the wage scale.

“We’re learning and hearing that clubs are struggling to fill assistant superintendent or assistant professional jobs,” he went on. “There’s many reasons for that, and I think the pandemic exposed it and in some ways expedited it. The days of the golf professional working seven days a week and being obligated and tied to the facility … that’s starting to change. Lifestyle, family activities, balance, quality of life, all that is really top of mind, and it’s something our industry has to be cognizant of.”

Beyond these changes, courses have to contend with a shortage of workers and immense competition for candidates who have no shortage of options.

“You might drive down the road and see a couple of restaurants or stores posting jobs for $18, $20, or even $25 an hour, and that’s competition to our facilities,” said Menachem. “The minimum wage, or the $15-an-hour rate to maintain a golf course and help serve on the maintenance crew, is probably a thing of the past.”

Attilo Cardaropoli

Attilo Cardaropoli says course owners and managers face a number of challenges, including long waits for new equipment and parts for everything from golf carts to refrigerators.

Fontaine concurred, speaking for nearly all course owners and managers when he said recruiting and retaining good help was a formidable, and expensive, challenge in 2021. But as he surveys the scene, he is seeing a somewhat improved hiring landscape for 2022, with the big issue being the price that will have to be paid for that help.

Attilio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club, agreed.

“Last year was a nightmare — we couldn’t find anybody to work,” he told BusinessWest. “Things are somewhat better this year, and we’re hoping it gets better still as the summer comes along with returning college students that we use quite a bit. Overall, it’s starting to ease up a bit, but it’s still not where it should be.”

Par for the Course

Meanwhile, other challenges facing area courses include the rising cost of needed goods — again, that means everything from food to golf balls to landscaping equipment — and the short supplies of all the above. And, of course, these two issues go hand in hand. As supplies shrink (often as demand increases), prices go higher.

Burak put all this perspective by relaying his difficulties in securing a much-needed tractor.

“I want the same brand that I had before, because I have all the attachments for it,” he explained. “I went to the dealer, saw the model I wanted, and I said, ‘what’s the availability?’ He said, ‘I have none in stock, and I have seven on the waiting list that are already sold. The first one that comes in goes to the guy who’s been on the list the longest, and he put his order in last August.’ I probably won’t get the tractor in all season, the list is so long, and that’s just one dealer.”

Cardaropoli told a similar story with his efforts to secure a new fleet of golf carts.

“We were supposed to get them right now, but the dealer says they’re just not available yet,” he said. “We’re hoping that they’re just a few months late, but we just don’t know. We ordered them last year, and we’re still waiting. And for some of the older ones that we’re still using … they break down, and we can’t get parts for them. It’s a struggle.”

Fontaine concurred. “With fertilizer alone, we’re seeing increases from 75% to 135% — and that’s just going to be a huge hit,” he said, noting that some of the materials in those products come from Russia and Ukraine, meaning things are likely to get worse before they get anhy better.

But the problem extends to golf equipment as well, with those we spoke with, noting that it was difficult to keep gloves, bags, and especially balls in stock last year, and similar problems are expected for 2022.

SEE: List of Golf Courses in Western Mass.

“We were very fortunate that we got our big order of golf balls in the spring from Titleist,” said Burak, mentioning the top ball maker in the world as he talked about 2021. “And we ended up with more than we needed, actually, and the rep kept coming back, saying, ‘do you have any we can take back? We have customers begging for them.’”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, told BusinessWest that such problems are likely to continue into 2022.

“Titleist is saying that by mid-summer, they could be running out of golf balls,” he said, adding that talk within the industry is that the resin needed to manufacture balls comes from China, and it is in increasingly short supply. “That’s what the companies are telling us. With many of these things that come from China, the prices are jumping, or you just can’t get them.”

Golf bags are a good example of this, he said, adding that supplies are limited and prices are skyrocketing, with models that cost $119 last year going now for at least $160.

Going for the Green

Despite these many challenges, golf-course operators are expecting 2022 to be another good year, perhaps a record year.

As noted, many courses are already open, and most anticipate opening sooner than would be considered normal, if recent weather patterns continue. And a good start is always important, Menachem said.

“It’s always a big help because it gets people interested, and you can build momentum,” he explained. “You can also drive some shoulder-season revenue that is not always available.”

Meanwhile, all evidence is pointing toward a continuation of what was seen in 2020 in terms of tee sheets filling up and, at Tekoa at least, having to tell callers that there are no times available.

On the private-course side of the ledger, Cararopoli noted that membership at Twin Hills is at nearly full capacity despite a healthy increase in fees — an indication, he said, that the momentum generated over the past two years is sustainable.

Meanwhile, on the banquet side of the balance sheet — a huge part of the business for many operations — there are many signs of improvement as well. Indeed, after 2020 was almost a complete washout and 2021 saw events but certainly not a full slate, especially later in the year, 2022 looks to be something approaching normal.

“The phone is ringing off the hook on the banquet side,” Burak said. “And that’s been so quiet — it’s been killing us for two years.”

Cardaropoli agreed, noting a slower pace of improvement at Twin Hills, with the phone ringing far more often than it has the past few years, at least with people looking to book events.

“The banquet side is just starting to pick up now,” he said. “Our January and February were terrible, we picked up a few in March, and April looks a little better; it’s really starting to look good for the fall, especially for charity tournaments.”

Returning to the golf side of the business, while the outlook is certainly upbeat, one wild card when it comes to how well these courses do concerns what happens with pricing, said Menachem, noting that, while increases are inevitable, courses need to walk a fine line on this matter.

They no doubt need to raise prices to cover the increases they’re facing, but they should be careful not to raise them to the point where such hikes might discourage those getting into the game or becoming more serious about it.

“There has to be some caution and some balance,” he said. “With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Those we spoke with said they’ve had no choice but to raise fees given all the price increases they’ve been hit with — on the labor front and every other front, for that matter.

“We have to go up on our membership, and we have to raise our price on greens fees and cart fees just to stay stable and competitive with the market,” Fontaine said. “With COVID and now the war in Ukraine, people have become accustomed to seeing prices going up, but I’m not sure how much higher we can go.”

Burak agreed, noting that Tekoa has increased greens fees $3 across the board, with memberships going up as well. Those hikes, implemented last fall, probably don’t cover all the increases he’s facing, he said, but competition for the golf dollar is steep, and the somewhat modest increase he’s implemented reflects that.

But he was quick to note that further adjustments may be necessary if inflationary trends continue.

“We’re going to have to see what our expenses turn out to be once things really get going,” he said, adding that these sentiments are true on both the golf and banquet sides of the business.

Bottom Line

Summing up the outlook for 2022 and beyond, Menachem said there is plenty of room for optimism within the golf industry, but there are also some bunkers and water hazards, figuratively speaking, that present real challenges to progress — and profitability.

“With all the positivity or demand and interest, there’s definitely, on the flip side, things we need to be focused on,” he said, adding that, in most respects, those within the industry expect to build on the momentum that’s been generated and put up some good numbers.

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Coping with the Conditions

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots, says cars are moving off the lot as fast as they come in, with most sold long before they arrive.

For the area’s auto dealers, this will be a year, and a December, unlike most and certainly not anything approaching normal. Lots are barren, and showrooms often have used cars under the bright lights. Dealers are coping as best they can, and so are customers, and while current conditions are expected to continue into next year, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

 

On one wall in his office at the Hyundai dealership that bears his name, Gary Rome has a large screen that displays images captured by more than two dozen security cameras.

As he talked about the current conditions facing dealers like himself, he gestured toward pictures on that screen of one of the back lots at the massive store on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke — a barren lot with no cars parked on it.

“Normally … that would be full — four lanes, full,” he said, noting that ‘normal’ was quite some time ago. Now, instead of normal, there is only reality, in the form of inventory shortages that have, as Rome noted, prompted dealers to put used cars in the showrooms, position cars so it looks like there is more inventory than there actually is, and even have employees park in front to provide that same effect.

He’s only taking the first of those steps, and that’s out of necessity, he said with a voice that hints at frustration, which is certainly understandable, but mostly acceptance of a situation that is far beyond dealers’ control and something they will have to live with for at least several more quarters.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

The frustration comes from the knowledge that these dealers could certainly sell a lot more cars if they had them, especially given the pent-up demand and the fact that many consumers have money to spend and are eager to spend it. And also the numbers — most dealers are looking at overall sales volume being down between 20% and 30% from what would be considered a ‘normal’ year. The acceptance part comes from the knowledge that consumers have responded to the situation mostly with patience and understanding, and, overall, dealers are making the best of a bad situation that could actually be worse. Much worse.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales. “And we’ve actually fared pretty well, and the customers have been accommodating because they can understand; they see the news. Somehow, we’re making it through, and a lot of customers have no issues with doing it this way.”

By ‘this way,’ he meant that, instead of driving onto a lot and choosing from among the dozens of options of the model they want, they’re either ordering what they want and waiting for it arrive in a few weeks (or a few months, as the case may be) or buying something they know is on a truck and on its way — even if it might not be exactly what they want.

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, agreed, noting that her family of dealerships has an appropriately named program that speaks to all this, called Reserve Your Ride.

“People can pick out their vehicle and order it or pick a car out of pipeline,” she said, adding that, while there may be fewer cars to actually choose from on the lots, people can still buy cars, and they are.

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front, but it might be two more years before dealers see something close to pre-pandemic levels.

Sometimes, because of the inventory issues, it may not be a new car, she went on, adding that, in this environment, some are waiting patiently for the new cars to roll in, while others are opting for used cars, and still others, those with leases that are expiring, are opting to buy those vehicles.

And this is how it will be for the foreseeable future, said those we spoke with, all of whom noted that COVID-19 and its many impacts have made the future — even the immediate future — hard to predict.

As for the present, it’s December, a month that is generally a good one for dealers, and for many reasons, ranging from holiday-gift purchases (especially luxury models) to businesses buying new vehicles before year’s end for tax purposes.

“This is a time of year when people want something new — new cell phones, a new car, a new used car, a new espresso machine,” said Sullivan, adding that this desire for new coincides with a mostly healthy economy, lower unemployment rates, and, overall, higher levels of confidence. “And when people feel confident, they wind up making large purchases because they are not afraid.”

They may not be afraid, but there will certainly be fewer cars to buy, and that means this will be different kind of December, but one that still holds promise for dealers — and customers — waiting for the picture to improve.

 

Dropping Down a Gear

To the untrained eye, Sullivan said, it doesn’t look like much is happening at area dealerships.

Indeed, what most people see in that minute they drive by a store is lots of acreage not being occupied by new or used cars. Indeed, the vacant parking lots have become one of the enduring images of the supply-chain crisis at this stage of the pandemic.

But a closer look would reveal plenty of activity, just not the type that would be considered normal, he said.

“If you put a stop-motion camera at any dealership, you’d see 18-wheelers coming in, you’d see cars coming off of it, you’d see them going through their pre-delivery inspections and service and the salesperson calling the customer to say his vehicle has arrived, and that person picking it up the next day,” he noted. “That’s about how fast this stuff is going right now.”

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting to a landscape that is without precedent in the auto industry.

Other dealers we spoke with echoed those remarks, saying the days of large inventories have been replaced by that new way of doing business described earlier, with the vast majority of cars sold before they reach the lot (70% to 80%, by most estimates) or within days of rolling off the truck.

This new world order is on clear display on a huge board in one of the offices at Gary Rome Hyundai, one that tracks which vehicles have been sold, by whom, and when they will arrive on the lot for the customer to pick up.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

It’s a different landscape, to be sure, said Rome, adding that there would normally be more than 500 cars on the Hyundai lots; currently there are roughly 140, about one-quarter of that total, with only 20 of them being new cars.

It’s the same at the TommyCar dealerships, said Cosenzi, noting that the Hyundai/Genesis dealership in Northampton would normally have 200 new models on the ground. After a shipment arrived the day before she talked with BusinessWest, there were 30 to 35. At the Volkswagen store, also in Northampton, there would usually be 80 new cars. Now, 20 is the norm.

These numbers prompt frustration because they collide with other kinds of numbers, especially the ones pertaining to unemployment, consumer spending, and consumer confidence levels, said Rome, noting, as others did, that pent-up demand remains high for all types of vehicles, but especially new models.

“Our clients, in general, have more money than they had two years ago, they have more savings, they have more equity in their homes,” he explained. “And they also feel like they want to do something good for themselves. They’ve been locked down for the past 20 months, and they’ve been looking at the same car all that time. They want to do something nice for themselves.”

Such dramatic reductions in inventory also make for obvious changes and adjustments, including those that need to be made for the holidays, said Cosenzi, noting that many of those desiring to put a new car in the driveway on Christmas morning understood that, to make that happen, they needed to place their order in November. And they might also have had to settle for their second choice when it came to color.

Meanwhile, more consumers are looking toward used cars, which are in greater abundance but still not in the pre-pandemic numbers, she said, and also at keeping a car that is coming off lease instead of trading it in for a new one.

“And a lot of those buy-out values are under current market values,” she said. “It’s a good deal for the customer.”

While things certainly aren’t normal, in some respects, the picture is actually starting to improve, said Sullivan, noting that arrivals are expected to pick up in December and be ahead of October and November levels and well ahead of months earlier this year, when supply-chain woes peaked.

“There’s cars coming in, and there’s cars going out,” he said, adding that his general managers — and there are nearly 20 of them — have reported as a group that the company should expect a solid December.

Meanwhile, looking down the road, or trying to, anyway, dealers said it is difficult to say when ‘normal’ — as in lots full of cars for people to choose from — will return, or even if they will return.

“I don’t think we’ll see it in 2022,” said Sullivan. “I think it will be 2023 before you drive by a dealership and see a stock full of cars. It’s not until the third quarter of 2022 where you’ll see maybe 65% of what you’d normally see for ground stock.”

Cosenzi concurred, but noted that projections vary with the brand, with some manufacturers responding to the worldwide microchip shortage and supply-chain crisis better than others.

“We’re anticipating that things will get better over the next few months, but it will take a long time for us to recuperate and get back to the inventory levels that we were accustomed to before COVID,” she said. “I think it will take at least a year.”

As for the longer term, Sullivan reiterated comments he made earlier this year when he said some manufacturers may not go back to those days when they built cars and then hoped dealers would sell them. They likely won’t build to order, although that’s possible, he said, but they may build fewer cars and put the hard focus on models they know the customer wants.

“Most of the manufacturers have decided that just ‘build, build, build, build, build’ isn’t that profitable for them,” he explained, “because all the cars end up on our lots, and we have to find a way to get rid of them, and they have to put incentives on them. There is a level of production that makes more sense to them.

“We’re not going to be this order-to-delivery industry, because when people want something, they want it very quickly, and some want it now,” he went on, adding that, despite this, levels of overall ground stock will likely be lower in the years to become, perhaps 75% of their current levels.

 

Bottom Line

But there are still far too many unknowns to make any hard projections about the future, said those we spoke with, adding that, right now, they’re dealing with right now.

And that’s the picture that comes clearly into focus on that screen in Rome’s office. Things are not as they were, and they may not be like that for a while — if ever again, in some respects.

“This is a year unlike anything I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been in this business,” said Cosenzi, who spoke for everyone in the industry with those comments, adding that, while the picture is slowly improving, what would be considered normal is still far down the road.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

On His Own Turf

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees — it’s a team people love or hate, almost in equal numbers.

Christian McCollum says he was just about to jump on his Peloton for his evening workout when the news that had been simmering all day finally came to a boil.

Brian Kelly, the longtime head football coach of Notre Dame, was leaving to take the same job at Louisiana State University (LSU).

That bombshell immediately changed the night, the next day, and the entire landscape for a number of people, including McCollum, a lead writer for the website Irish Sports Daily, which is devoted entirely to Notre Dame sports, with, as might be expected at this time of year, a heavy focus on a football team that has a huge, national following.

Long story short, McCollum, lead recruiting writer for the site, never did get his bike ride that night, and he’s not sure when he will.

Indeed, after the news became official early in the evening on Nov. 29, the writers at Irish Sports Daily went into action, quickly turning out stories on Kelly’s departure, likely successors, and, in McCollum’s case, one on who might be on the sidelines for the Irish if they play in a New Year’s Six bowl game or even one of the playoff games.

There were emergency Zoom meetings for the writers and, for McCollum, a series of calls to recruits to gauge their reaction to what was, for most, a stunning turn of events.

Recruiting has become McCollum’s main point of focus in a career now devoted mostly to Notre Dame sports and especially football. He also has an entrepreneurial venture of his own called Play Action Pools, an office sports pool hosting site that is gaining traction and looking to hit its stride in time for next spring’s March Madness.

For McCollum, Notre Dame sports has become as a much a passion as a job or a career.

After a 10-year stint with the Republican that started when he was in college, he moved to South Bend when he was hired by Frank Publishing, which produces Irish Sports Daily.  His first job was a beat writer for both the football and basketball teams.

“I would go to all the practices, all the press conferences, and all the games, home and away — I would basically cover the team,” he said, adding that he moved back to this area in 2011 and has since focused mostly on recruiting, following the high-school players the team is recruiting seriously and taking their stories right up to signing day and beyond.

“Recruitment starts earlier and earlier these days; sometimes they’re freshmen in high school, sometimes they’re sophomores,” he noted. “I just track them throughout their journey.”

“There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

He acknowledged that the school’s massive fan base has a status in sports that is much like a certain baseball team in New York. He called it a ‘community.’

“They’re the most loved — and the most hated, kind of like the Yankees, as they say, which makes a lot of sense,” he noted, adding that the message-board comments reflect every emotion when it comes to the team, from loyalty to cynicism.

“A lot of members seem to enjoy misery,” he went on. “They claim to be Notre Dame fans, but they’re not just cynical, they almost seem like they’re hoping for the worst thing that can happen. But deep down, I think they’re still Notre Dame fans; they just enjoy pain.”

 

Breaking News

When BusinessWest first talked with McCollum in very late November, after the final game of the season, a win over Stanford, he said much of the discussion on the site’s message boards was about what had to happen for the Irish to become one of the four teams in the FBS playoff — certain teams needed to lose in the week ahead for that to become likely — whether that would happen, and even if it should happen.

Indeed, McCollum acknowledged that some of those cynical fans were wondering out loud if it might be better for a team that has made the playoffs several times, and even the championship game one year, but have been routed in each game, to earn a New Year’s Six bowl game instead. The thinking among some is that latter scenario would actually be better for recruiting.

“That’s a big debate we have on the board all the time,” he told BusinessWest. “People say they would rather not go to the playoffs if they’re going to get beat by 30 by Georgia. I’m of the opposite camp. You’re playing these games to try to win a championship, and you can’t win it if you’re not there.

“Some people say it hurts recruiting when you lose big like that, but this is what happened in recent years, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt recruiting,” he went on. “And it’s just as easy to say it helps recruiting; you can say to a kid, ‘we’re there … we just need to take the next step, and you’re one of the players who can help us take that next step.’”

But then, Kelly dropped his bombshell — a few weeks after dismissing speculation that he might be tempted to take other college jobs, such as the one at the University of Southern California — and everything changed.

McCollum had been planning to do a number of stories on Notre Dame’s coaches, including Kelly, fanning out to different parts of the country — now that their regular season was over and another game wouldn’t be played for at least three weeks and possibly more than a month — to check in with those coming to Notre Dame and try to sway some others to come to South Bend. Now, those trips, the ones that will still happen, will be much different in tone and complexity because so much is uncertain.

As for McCollum, he’s already been working the phones to gauge the reaction of recruits and their parents to what has taken place.

“Initially, the response was disbelief,” he said of his early calls to recruits and their families, during which he was often breaking the news about Kelly. “And then, disbelief turned into frustration. There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

Overall, the Kelly saga presents an intriguing day in the life for McCollum, or, to be more precise, a day unlike any other.

Indeed, when asked where he was when the news broke, he said it was more of a process than a single phone call, text, or tweet.

“I was at home during the day when I started hearing rumbles from people I trust,” he said. “It wasn’t that Kelly was going to LSU, but that LSU was going to make a serious offer, as in money that would be hard to turn down.”

From there, events unfolded relatively slowly, and Kelly’s departure, which earlier in the day still seemed unlikely, became more of a possibility, said McCollum, adding that he kept getting calls and updates all day long, even while attending his daughter’s basketball game.

“When I got home, I still didn’t believe he was going to go because of the culture fit,” he explained. “So I started texting some of my buddies to let them know that this was out there and that it would be just my luck to have this happen now and turn my world upside down.”

And … that’s just what happened. His world turned upside down.

But that’s part of life when you cover this team, one that has such a huge following. One where seemingly small news is big news, and where big news is BIG news.

Big enough to keep him off his Peloton.

Instead of the planned stories on what recruits were thinking as National Signing Day (Dec. 15) approached, now, the focus was on whether they would stay with the Irish if they were already committed — some have already de-committed — or adjust their focus if they were not.

 

Endless Cycle

As noted earlier, talking with recruits and following the high-stakes, often-changing competition to sign top-tier athletes has become more than a job for McCollum.

He’s now one of the foremost, and most trusted, sources on Notre Dame football and especially its recruiting efforts.

He said there is certainly a Groundhog Day nature to his work in that he’s asking the same questions of different people each year, but he noted that each story is different in some respects, and he enjoys following each one to its end — whether the recruit comes to Notre dame or goes somewhere else.

“And it never really ends — it’s always a rolling thing,” he said. “Once this class of ’22 is signed, we’re heavily into ’23 and ’24, to be honest. I enjoy it … it’s my job to really help members understand what’s going on in that young man’s head, what he’s thinking, who’s the competition, what he’s going to value when it comes to making that decision, and keeping our subscribers up to date on what’s likely to happen when it comes to recruiting at Notre Dame.”

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Swinging in the Rain

 

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

 

Mike Fontaine has been working in the golf business for more than three decades now. As the general manager at the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, he speaks from experience when he says this season has been unlike anything course owners and managers have seen in a long while, if ever.

The rain has been almost constant, bringing with it lost rounds, lost days, damage to fairways and greens, logistical problems when it comes to all that has been postponed, additional expense on the course-maintenance side, and … well, you get the idea.

“It’s been a challenge at best,” said Fontaine, with a heavy dose of understatement in his voice. “In all my years in golf, this weather pattern has been the toughest I’ve seen. It was probably the wettest July on record, and August brought the humidity and more rain. And with no one wanting to work and it being very difficult to find people in all departments, not just food and beverage…”

His voice tailed off, but he got his key points across: 2021 has been a struggle, in every way.

But it hasn’t been a lost year by any means. Indeed, it’s been a solid season for many golf operations, especially those that are membership-based or are mostly private but allow public play. That’s because a good number of those who took up the game, or rediscovered it, during the pandemic, when there was seemingly nothing else to do, stayed with it.

At least … when the weather would allow them to.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year,” said Kevin Piecuch, head pro at Country Club of Greenfield, a quasi-public operation, noting that, based on last year’s strong numbers, the bar was set fairly high for 2021. “It wasn’t quite as busy as last year, but it has still been a solid year, although the weather has certainly hurt us.”

Fontaine concurred. “When it’s not raining, we’ve been packed.”

E.J. Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club in West Springfield, went further. He said that, despite the rain, which has taken five whole days from the calendar, by his count, and parts of countless others, the club is doing nearly as well as it did last year, and much better than the years immediately preceding the pandemic.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year.”

“We didn’t reach 2020 numbers, but we surpassed all our 2019 numbers,” he noted. “And we destroyed 2018 numbers — absolutely clobbered them.”

Like Fontaine and Piecuch, Altobello said the surge the game witnessed in 2020 appears to have staying power, manifesting itself in everything from those impressive numbers of rounds to a waiting list for membership, something this club, and most area clubs, haven’t seen in quite a while.

“We’re back to an initiation fee at the club, for the first time in 15 years or more,” he noted. “Every category is filled up. We’re still taking some social memberships and things like that, but everything else is full; we have 20 people on a waiting list trying to get in for 2022.”

The hope, of course, is that the rain subsides for the last few months of this year and courses continue to build momentum for 2022. But as everyone has seen this past summer, forecasting can be difficult.

 

Clouding the Issue

The 8th hole at Greenfield is a fairly short par 5, while the 9th is a stout par 4 of nearly 400 yards. There were times this year, though, when the former was a par 4 and the latter a par 3, because portions of those fairways were just too wet for play and adjustments had to be made, said Piecuch, who also has 30 years of experience under his belt and can say with hesitation that he’s never seen this much rain.

“We’ve had to flop some holes around and take some other steps,” he said, adding that there has been some shuffling of the schedule as well, especially with league play, which has seen a number of cancellations.

There have been adjustments like this at many area clubs over the course of the year, with the relentless rains taking their toll on courses that were soft most all of the time and waterlogged a good deal of the time.

At many courses, carts were not permitted on some days, and were only permitted on the cart paths on many others. Some holes were simply unplayable, and others had to be shortened. And those were some of the minor steps to be taken.

Indeed, following some of the many heavy downpours, especially those accompanying Hurricane Ida just before Labor Day weekend, courses had to close and dry out.

Fontaine, like others in the business, has kept careful count of the days, and rounds, lost to the weather. “It rained parts of 19 days in July, enough for us to lose revenue each one,” he said, adding that there were other days when it didn’t rain but the course was closed, at least part of the day, because it wasn’t playable.

“There was standing water on holes where we don’t have cart paths, or the cart paths were impassable, or trees came down,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, overall, the couse has held up well through it all.

Often, the rain came with heavy winds. Altobello said a rare microburst took down 17 trees on the Springfield Country Club property in late August.

The rain became more poignant, and even more of a story, because, as noted, this was supposed to be a big year for area courses, a time to build on the momentum gained last season, when, because almost everything done indoors was closed, golf saw a resurgence. It wasn’t like 1997, when Tiger Woods was fueling almost unprecedented interest in the game and new courses — like the Ledges — were conceptualized and built to capitalize on that surge.

But it was certainly, well … greener times for courses in a region that had seen some tracks close — Southwick Country Club and Hickory Ridge in Amherst, for example — and many private courses struggle to find members and actively market themselves (something rarely seen in years past) in search of more.

And while it would have been much better in a normal weather year, 2021 was decent in many respects. Those we talked with said it didn’t rain much on weekends, their most important days, and the clubs were able to salvage at least part of the most of the days when it did rain.

“On most all days, we were able to salvage half a day — play in the morning, get rained out in the afternoon, for example,” said Altobello, noting that, even at private clubs, rounds matter because they add up to cart and food and beverage revenues. “For the amount of rain we received, we did way better than we could have.”

Perhaps more important than the number of rounds recorded this year is the evidence collected that the resurgence the game saw in 2020 might have some legs.

“There’s a ton of interest — people who quit the game for years have gotten back into it,” he said, adding that this interest is across the board, young and old, men and women. “They’re still using it as a way to get out and spend time with people they like or love without being in an indoor setting.”

Piecuch agreed. He said that, as challenging as 2021 has been — and it has been a challenge — it has certainly maintained and in some ways built upon the momentum gained in 2021.

“We rely on our membership, and our membership is up 15% — it’s the highest it’s ever been,” he noted, adding that the pandemic certainly had something to do with this. “We’ve had a solid year overall, despite everything, and I think that bodes well for the future.”

 

When It Rains…

Looking ahead to next year, Fontaine said area courses will likely have considerable work to do to make sure fairways, tees, and greens are in good shape for the spring given all the rain in 2021.

“I think everyone is a little nicked up, a little banged up from all the sitting water on the fairways — when the sun comes out, that just burns the turf,” he explained. “So I’m sure most courses will be overseeding and praying for recovery; there’s going to be extra fertilizer put down and a lot of grass seed planted over the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of seed — a pandemic-fueled resurgence in the game — seems to have already taken root in this region. And it continues its growth spurt despite weather patterns that haven’t been seen in decades, if ever.

And that’s why the future of this business seems, well, sunny.

 

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Play Time

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Among the industries battered by the pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown, indoor recreation centers — from bowling alleys to trampoline rooms to roller rinks — took a massive hit last year, forced to close for longer than most other businesses and then tasked with navigating a very gradual ramp-up to normal operations. Now, a month after the final restrictions were lifted, the owners and managers of these businesses are grateful to be fully open, with a renewed understanding of the value of play in people’s lives.

By Mark Morris

After a successful 2019, Jeff Bujak looked forward to 2020 as a chance to further grow Prodigy Mini Golf and Game Room in Easthampton. Then the pandemic hit.

“In the beginning, we were told to shut down for 15 days, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Bujak recalled. When two weeks stretched to four months, however, he became worried about his business surviving.

He wasn’t alone. Every business that offers indoor entertainment was affected by the lengthier-than-expected, state-mandated shutdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Rob Doty, managing partner at Bounce! Trampoline Sports in Springfield, said his doors remained closed just two weeks short of a full year.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments. I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

“We had just installed a laser-tag arena,” Doty said. “We were getting it up and running for the season when we had to shut down.”

Like Bounce!, Interskate 91 North closed the roller-skating rink at Hampshire Mall in March 2020 but was allowed to reopen in October. Management held off opening until after Thanksgiving, but then had to shut down again when COVID-19 infection rates began to climb.

“To follow the guidelines, we stayed closed for a few more months and opened again in late March,” said Sarah O’Brien, sessions manager.

Meanwhile, Sarah Blais, general manager of Spare Time Bowling in Northampton, said her facility remained closed until late July 2020, and then, by mandate, could only operate at 25% capacity.

Jeff Bujack

Jeff Bujack is happy that customers can once again access his collection of vintage video games at Prodigy.

“We spaced everyone out by using every other lane,” she said. “It was slow in the beginning, and we didn’t even hit our 25% capacity numbers.”

Once the calendar turned to 2021, Blais said business began to pick up, and Spare Time began to reach its limited capacity. As more employees returned, she held an orientation for them on how to operate during a pandemic that’s not yet over.

“In short, it involved much more work than usual, and my team was all in for it,” she said. Much of the extra work concerned lots of sanitizing, including every bowling ball in the place.”

While extra cleaning was part of the mandate to reopen, all the managers BusinessWest spoke with agreed that the emphasis on cleaning went a long way toward helping customers feel safe.

“For the most part, we were doing our normal cleaning, but we did it more often,” O’Brien said. “People loved seeing us constantly cleaning.”

Doty concurred. “Now that hyper-cleaning has become second nature, I don’t see us changing things,” he said, adding that his crews use a fogger/mister to clean the trampoline courts as well as additional handheld sprayers to clean other areas.

“It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

It’s yet another step in emerging from what has been a challenging 16 months, to say the least. But with the state lifting all pandemic restrictions on gathering sizes and mask wearing at the end of May, this is also an optimistic time for these facilities that are eagerly welcoming back families grateful for something to do.

 

Leveling Down

Prodigy doesn’t easily fit into a business category because it offers its customers the chance to play mini-golf, vintage video games, and even board games. Located in the Eastworks mill complex, Prodigy occupies 8,000 square feet, with 14-foot high ceilings, industrial fans, and windows that open to the outside.

While disappointed that his business was considered an arcade by state standards, Bujak was able to open last summer because indoor mini-golf courses were allowed to operate. He could not offer play on the video games, however, due to limits on arcades.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

While nearly breaking even during the during the warm months, by November, the losses began to pile up, and Bujak was desperate.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments,” he recalled. “I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

With plenty of spacing and cleaning protocols in place, he reached out to his social-media followers to at least try the new layout and give their feedback. He said his spacious location eased concerns about social distancing and air flow.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place. The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

“Gradually, friends, family, and our regular customers came in,” Bujak said. By January, business had returned, and February was the most successful month in Prodigy’s history.

“I don’t know if all these efforts with masks, distancing, and cleaning actually made people more safe,” he said. “It was more important that people felt safe in the environment and felt good about their choice to come in.”

As to why February was a banner month for Prodigy, Bujak said people had begun to figure out they could go out as long as they wore masks and distanced. People were also becoming more hopeful as access to vaccines received news coverage. “Most people were not ready for a concert or bar atmosphere, so this was a good middle ground of being social but still low-key.”

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

Blais credits a simpler rationale. “I think everybody just met their quota of staying at home,” she said with a laugh.

For the better part of a year during which Interskate 91 opened and closed a couple times, O’Brien found herself sidelined, without work, for the first time since she was 14 years old.

“I was home for nearly a year, and I missed not being here,” she said. “It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

At the height of the pandemic when nearly everyone was advised to stay home, many used their time to clean out garages and basements to get rid of things that were no longer useful. Bujak benefited greatly from the COVID cleanout as many people donated old video-game consoles, video games, and board games to him.

“I might have doubled my amount of games just from people cleaning out their basements,” he said.

While most managers said they used the closed time to deep-clean their locations, O’Brien said Interskate 91 installed a new carpet and created a dedicated area where food is sold and eaten. “In the past, we let people eat anywhere. By keeping it all in one area, we can offer more food choices than we did before.”

As of May 29, people who had been vaccinated no longer had to wear masks in retail settings, and bounce houses, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and similar businesses could once again operate at full capacity.

“On the first weekend where people didn’t have to wear masks, we had lots of families and kids come in,” O’Brien recalled. “ Our regulars were so excited that we were open again.”

Blais admits seeing the return of people bowling was an emotional experience. “It’s very nice to hear bowling balls hitting the pins again.”

Doty is looking forward to finally getting use out of the laser-tag room. “Now that we’re fully open, we’re getting the word out about our laser tag and our expanded arcade,” he said, adding that he’s also looking forward to booking birthday parties and other group events.

To recognize the challenging 16 months everyone has gone through, Spare Time has begun offering weekly Service Industry Nights to workers in the restaurant industry.

“I’ve been talking with the restaurants in town, and we offer them free bowling from 9 to 11 p.m., and they have the place to themselves,” Blais said. “We are extending our service nights to our police and fire departments as well.”

 

Replay Value

Bujak said the experience of the past 15 months has made him a different person. At the start of the pandemic, he saw himself as an individual business owner who worried about losing his dream. He didn’t realize that Prodigy was bigger than just him.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place,’” he told BusinessWest. “The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

Now that he can operate at full capacity, Bujak is grateful his business has survived and he can once again take care of his regular customers and introduce Prodigy to new ones.

“Here we are,” he said, “back to normal-ish.”

Sports & Leisure

Buy the Buy

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says many people who discovered or rediscovered golf in 2020 are coming back to buy new equipment in 2021.

Dave DiRico says his shop is usually busy in late March and early April as golfers gear up for a new season.

This year, the look and feel have been different, and for many reasons. Golf got an unexpected and much-deserved boost last year when it became one of the few organized sports people could take part in. And it’s received another boost from the fact that Americans have been saving money as perhaps never before, and many of them have also been receiving stimulus checks from the government.

Add it all up, and March and April have been even busier than normal, said DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, adding that, for now, he doesn’t see many signs of slowing down.

“We’re seeing it at all levels, all age groups, starting with the seniors,” he said. “They didn’t travel as much over the past year. They haven’t gone out to dinner; they didn’t go on their spring golf trip to Florida. And we’re seeing more of those people buying clubs — and that’s generally not our soft spot.”

That soft spot would be younger professionals and junior golfers, he went on, adding that these people are buying clubs, too, often with the help of the government.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people took up the game last year, or found it again after drifting away from it for whatever reason. Many of these people bought used equipment last year — so much that inventories dwindled significantly — and this year, they’re coming back for new clubs.

“Most of them are deciding to continue to play — they enjoyed it,” DiRico said. “And they’re trading in their used equipment for new stuff — because they intend to stay with it.”

The surge in play and its impact on the retail side of the game is reflected in the numbers. In the third quarter of 2020, for example, retail sales of golf equipment exceeded $1 billion for the first time ever for that period, according to Golf Datatech, an industry research firm. Meanwhile, Callaway Golf Co., which manufactures golf balls in Chicopee, reported a 20% surge in sales in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The problem some players are encountering, though, is limited inventories of new equipment. Indeed, the golf manufacturers, like those who make cars and countless other products, are experiencing supply-chain issues and difficulties getting the materials they need. This has led to sometimes lengthy waits for ordered clubs to be delivered.

“There’s such an increased demand with new golfers across the country that they’re all running out of equipment,” he explained. “They can only manufacture so much, and the demand is far more then they projected. Some companies can’t get shafts, others can’t get grips — you can’t make a golf club unless you have all the components.

“We have a few companies that are great — they’ve managed to stay ahead of this, and they’re doing very well,” he went on. “But then, we have some other companies … you have to wait 15 weeks to get a set of irons.”

Doing some quick math, DiRico said this will translate into delivery sometime in June, far longer than golfers anxious to get their hands on new irons or a new driver want to wait.

But, overall, this would have to be considered a good problem to have — if such things actually exist in business.

Only a few years ago, the golf industry was in a sharp decline, with membership down at most clubs, tee times readily available at public facilities, and racks full of new equipment for which there wasn’t strong demand. Things have changed in a hurry, and DiRico and others hope most of these trends — not the current supply-and-demand issues, certainly — have some permanence to them.

 

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

A Simple Mission

Just over a year ago this time, Jesse Menachem and his staff at the Massachusetts Golf Assoc. (MGA) were fighting — and fighting hard — to convince the state simply to let golf-course owners maintain their property.

Despite some intense lobbying by his group, Gov. Charlie Baker made golf courses part of his broad shutdown of non-essential businesses in March 2020, and for weeks, the industry lingered in a sort of limbo, not knowing when, if, and under what circumstances courses would be allowed to reopen.

When they did, in mid-May, a number of limiting restrictions kept play at modest levels. But then … the lid came off, and the industry found itself in an enviable position. Indeed, golf was one of the few activities people could take part in during the pandemic, and people started taking it up — or taking it up again, as the case may be, a development that benefited public and private courses alike.

“I’ve heard from clubs that recorded anywhere from a 20% to 50% increase in rounds, which is incredible, because capacity was limited due to the longer intervals between tee times, as mandated by the state,” said Menachem, president of the MGA. “You couldn’t find tee times on weekends at many facilities; with people working from home, working remotely, not traveling, not having family activities like Little League and soccer, golf became number one in a lot of people’s minds, and the game really benefited.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

“If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Now, as the 2021 season gets set to begin in earnest (some courses have already been open for several weeks), the golf industry has a simple, yet also complex, mission that Menachem summed up directly and succinctly: “make it sticky.”

By that, he meant those managing the state’s courses have to take advantage of this huge opportunity they’ve been granted and compel those who took to golf last year, because there were few attractive options, stay with the game now that other options exist.

“That’s our job; that’s what we’re up against — we have to make sure it’s sticky, and that’s something we have not been very good at,” he explained. “If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Indeed, as they go about this mission, courses will have advantages and selling points they didn’t have last year, said Menachem, especially when it comes to their 19th holes, many of which were closed in 2020, while those that were open faced a mountain of restrictions on what they could serve, when, and how. They have also learned some lessons from last year, including how those longer intervals between tee times improved pace of play, reduced logjams on the course, and improved the overall player experience.

But golf will also be facing far more competition in 2021 when it comes to the time, attention, and spending dollars of those who found the game a year ago. Indeed, as restrictions are eased, individuals and families can return to restaurants, museums, the cottage at the beach, and more.

For course owners and managers, the emphasis must be on providing a solid experience, one that prompts a return visit — or several. This has always been the emphasis, he said, but now even moreso, with courses being presented with what would have to be a considered a unique opportunity.

“It’s really our obligation to make sure that experience is favorable,” Menachem told BusinessWest. “For those who are being reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, we’ve got to invite them back; we have to make them feel comfortable and cater to what their desires are. We have to do everything within our power to make sure that golfer on site has the best experience possible and keep them coming back.”

 

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

Raising Their Game

Team President Nathan Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds hit the ice for the first time three years ago, its management team heard plenty of skepticism about whether hockey could truly thrive and grow beyond a certain ceiling in the city. While there’s still plenty of room for growth in ticket sales, attendance surged last season to a two-decade high, with Saturday nights in particular routinely selling out. In short, there’s a lot of optimism inside the Thunderbirds offices — and a refusal to get complacent.

If Springfield is in the midst of a renaissance, Nathan Costa says, the Springfield Thunderbirds are a large part of the reason — even if not everyone thought they could be.

“I told the staff recently, ‘I think we’ve been able to do this because we came in with a chip on our shoulder.’ We wanted to prove we could do it here and that, if we did it the right way, it could work,” said Costa, the team’s president. “When we first came in, a lot of people said, ‘teams haven’t always had success here — what’s different about you guys?’”

At the start of their fourth season in Springfield, the Thunderbirds — the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Florida Panthers — have slowly raised what was, in some eyes, a low bar when Costa and a team of local investors brought hockey back to Springfield in 2016 following the departure of the Falcons.

Perhaps most strikingly, the team averaged more than 5,000 fans per night last season — a number no Springfield hockey team had achieved in more than two decades.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations,” Costa told BusinessWest two weeks before the team begins its 2019-20 home campaign on Oct. 5. “Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

This year’s squad hits the ice for a practice session last week.

Above Costa’s office door is painted the number 6,793. That’s the sellout number at the MassMutual Center, and it’s a number the team reached on about a dozen occasions last season, mostly Saturday nights. With a friendlier home schedule this year (more on that in a bit), the goal is to record even more sellouts and get that average attendance closer to 6,000 than 5,000 — and Costa thinks it’s reachable.

“In the past, you could always walk up and buy a ticket here. Now, if you don’t get a package, or you don’t get a ticket early on, especially for those Saturday nights in the second half of the season, you can’t find a ticket. And that’s what we wanted to create,” he said. “But it’s not easy to do.”

Last year, preparations to host the AHL All-Star Classic (a significant feather in the franchise’s cap) knocked out home games the weekend before, traditionally one of the league’s busier weekends, cutting down the total number of weekend dates. But for the 2019-20 season, the Thunderbirds will host 15 Saturday-night and 14 Friday-night tilts, as well as four Sunday-afternoon games, in all accounting for 33 of the schedule’s 38 home games.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations. Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

Still, “we’re continuing to put an emphasis on getting to the point where we’re filling the building every single night,” Costa said, adding that season-ticket sales have increased every year. So have the team’s fortunes on the ice, as it posted a winning record last year, although it has missed the playoffs all three years.

“The Panthers had quite a few injuries, so they called up a number of our players around the all-star break, which was challenging on the hockey side,” he explained. “But on the business side, we continue to do what we’ve talked about from the very beginning, which is focus on the family-fun, entertainment aspects of coming to games.

“People want to see a winning product, obviously — especially in this market, where people are spoiled with winning teams,” he went on. “So we’re hoping that comes with time. But we’re also trying to lay a foundation where we’re providing a professional, awesome experience here in the arena, and I think we’re doing that and creating events and promotions people are connecting with.”

From the start, Costa and his team tackled some common gripes from the Falcons’ tenure, including lowering concession prices, negotiating a deal for free parking in the neighboring garage, building a richer schedule of promotions — even ramping up video production to make sure season-ticket holders are watching fresh videos on the big screens as the season moves along.

Being granted last year’s all-star events was a signal, he said, that the AHL recognized what was happening and how fans were responding. So were a series of league awards last year, from Costa being named outstanding executive to honors for the team’s digital-media presence and marketing efforts.

“The All-Star Classic was an absolute home run — it raised our profile locally and within the AHL,” Costa said. “Springfield wasn’t necessarily viewed as a place where you could see best practices or have a full building, but now, we’ve changed the perception of Western Mass. among the AHL board and really rejuvenated the city from their perspective.”

And the perspective of others as well — about 5,000 a night.

Lacing ’em Up

When the Portland Pirates left Maine for Springfield three years ago, the City of Homes was no doubt on the rise, but pieces were still falling into place downtown, and the MGM Springfield casino was still more than two years from opening.

“That was a challenge, when there wasn’t as much life and things going on,” Costa said. “We really wanted to face a lot of the hurdles that we heard about head-on, much of which was parking, safety, or that it costs too much to come to a game. We were trying to bring people downtown.”

Some of those concerns were more reputation than reality, he added. “I’ve worked downtown more than 10 years, and I’ve never not felt safe. And I think that perception is gone now. We don’t hear it at all anymore. It is a testament to the city.”

Part of that change is the simple fact of more feet on the street, especially at night.

“There’s a lot more going on. Restaurants are buzzing. People are walking around. There’s life, there’s energy. The city was primed for that,” he said, crediting entities like MGM and the Springfield Business Improvement District and efforts in the realms of public safety and downtown beautification.

Still, selling a new team to the public after the Falcons took flight was a challenge initially. “But we were confident in our business plan and stuck to what worked in other AHL cities; we stuck to providing value to ticket holders and in the arena. The league started feeling good about us, and it’s steadily grown over three years.”

The franchise is always feeling out new promotions, although a few have become regular events, including 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) and a Friday-night concert series; March’s Pink in the Rink event to celebrate breast-cancer survivors and raise funds for treatment and research; and December’s Teddy Bear Toss, where fans bring stuffed animals and throw them on the ice after the home team’s first goal, to be collected and donated to underprivileged children.

Visits from David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez have proven hugely popular as well, and while the team doesn’t have someone of quite that stature stopping by this year, it has planned four guest appearances, including former Florida Panther goalie Roberto Luongo in November; Mike Eruzione from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in February, marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice; and Brian Scalabrine from the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship team in March.

The fourth guest is a little more outside the box: actor Leslie David Baker, who played Stanley Hudson in the hit TV show The Office, will visit in December for what the team is labeling its Office Holiday Party, inviting local businesses to basically celebrate the season at the MassMutual Center, watch a game, and meet Baker.

“We’re trying to provide more value to ticket holders, and letting them know we continue to invest in the game experience,” Costa said.

Another returning promotion is a Blast from the Past night in January, when the team reverts to 1990-era Springfield Indians jerseys, celebrating the 30th anniversary of that team’s Calder Cup win.

“We’re trying to tap into that old nostalgia; that’s a fun part of what we do,” Costa said, noting that the team still owns the Springfield Indians trademark. “We made the decision not to rebrand to that when we purchased the franchise. But using it here once in a while is fun, and we can create an event around it that people look forward to.

“I think we’ve done a good job of recognizing the past but also creating our own brand,” he went on. “We obviously still hear about the Indians quite a bit — there’s a lot of romanticizing around the Indians, and obviously they had some really good, successful years — but it wasn’t all roses during that time. They had their ups and downs.”

The goal with the Thunderbirds, obviously, is to have far more of the former than the latter.

“There’s been a tendency in the past to have a negative viewpoint about downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We want create a positive experience. It’s a perfect size city for AHL franchise. Now we have to keep that trajectory moving forward and continue to sell tickets and show value. The minute we take our foot off the gas, our business is going to suffer.”

Community Goals

The Thunderbirds have been equally aggressive about community involvement, Costa said, with Boomer, the team’s mascot, making more than 200 appearances a year at businesses, schools, and organizations, and each player making at least three appearances as well, in addition to team events. The franchise has also developed a charitable foundation and youth-oriented outreaches like a reading program, a kids club, and a partnership that creates positive connections between area youth and the Springfield Police.

“Being here in this marketplace, there’s a duty for us to give back and truly be a part of the community,” Costa said. “So a lot of this stuff is focused on giving back and doing the right thing by our community in general.”

He’s gratified by the growth of the brand and the deepening of its civic roots, but admits he’s driven somewhat by anxiety and fear of failure, and still carries that chip on his shoulder from the early days. He also credits a hardworking staff willing to roll up their sleeves, hit the phones and the streets, and do the often-tedious work it takes to increase ticket sales and awareness of what’s happening on the ice.

“It’s awesome to see how the community has surrounded us and supported what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But we’ve never said, ‘hey, let’s just open the arena and see who comes out.’ We’ve always been proactive about getting out and telling our story. Now, we’re so well-positioned that, if the team has some success on the ice, it’s ready to take off. It’s palpable. If you come on a Saturday night, you can feel the energy.”

With so many entertainment options available — and a deep mesh of TV programming that makes it easier for families to just stay home — Costa and his team certainly aren’t letting up on the gas. In short, that number 6,793 continues to drive them.

“There’s nowhere else to go but up,” he said. “If we keep doing the things we’re doing, it will happen, and I think we’re seeing that now — that doing the right thing and working hard will lead to success.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Striking a Chord

Ruth Griggs’ passion for jazz music and a desire to give back to the community is what inspired her to reboot the festival.

One of the many things that is most loved about the city of Northampton is its walkability, allowing both residents and visitors to appreciate the uniqueness of this eclectic community with ease. On Oct. 4, jazz music will radiate from several corners of the city, signaling the start of the annual Northampton Jazz Festival.

Founded in 2011, the festival was conceived by five people who wanted to find a way to combine their passion for jazz with their love for Northampton. So they put together an event complete with food trucks, vendors, and, of course, lots of jazz.

But their operating model became too expensive to maintain, so the festival was discontinued after its 2015 show.

After a two-year hiatus, however, a team of dedicated individuals determined to bring it back, and thus, the Northampton Jazz Festival 2.0 was born.

Thanks to the hard work of a small but dedicated team, a beloved event is back and better than ever, they say, and in a more sustainable way to make sure the festival is here to stay.

“We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

Indeed, when Amy Cahillane, director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., approached Ruth Griggs about bringing the festival back, Griggs considered the proprosition a no-brainer. Now president of the festival, Griggs said Cahillane presented a model that offered everything that was lacking before, including strong relationships downtown and with city government.

When Cahillane told her she could help with these missing pieces, Griggs recalled, she said, “you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“I knew one of the things that was lacking in the former iteration of the jazz festival was the kind of support they needed to make this viable,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

She said the idea for this new model is for people to enjoy Northampton and encourage those attending the concerts to stop at the shops downtown.

The Jeremy Turgeon Quintet performs at the Jazz Strut. (Photo by Bobby Davis)

What remains from the old model, however, is the core goal that was established when the festival began: to expose people of all generations, ethnicities, and orientations to jazz music, while also bringing more visitors to the city.

“We want people to walk from concert to concert and get a cup of coffee at the Roost or have lunch at Paul and Elizabeth’s or one of the many restaurants in town,” Griggs said. “We want them to enjoy Northampton and enjoy the jazz.”

More than 2,000 people took in the 2018 festival, coming from across Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut to see locally, regionally, and nationally recognized musicians perform. Twenty jazz performances took place at 17 different venues around downtown Northampton over the course of four days, another twist on the new version of the festival. Previously, the event was staged behind Thornes Marketplace in a parking lot, but Griggs said the new model encourages people to explore the city and gives them a chance to patronize all the shops and restaurants.

With the opening of MGM Springfield in August 2018, one of the stated goals of the festival was to help mitigate the impact of the casino on Northampton, which has, for four decades now, boasted the region’s most vibrant downtown.

In 2018, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allocated $100,000 to the city to develop and implement marketing strategies to keep Northampton a well-known and popular destination for arts and entertainment, shopping, and dining.

“One of the challenges that merchants are facing all around the country is a lack of foot traffic because people are shopping online,” Griggs said. “There’s nothing that’s more important to a retailer than people walking by their store.”

This is especially true for many of the mom-and-pop shops that rely on local business to stay open. Griggs maintains that jazz music lifts people’s spirits and often encourages them to go into a store.

“When you either have music playing in the store or right outside the store, it makes people stop and look and listen and walk into the store in many cases,” she said. “I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”

She also said merchants were happy with the festival last year and thought the festival brought business to the downtown area.

“It exposes Northampton to people that may not have otherwise known about the town, and it reinforces for the community downtown how wonderful it is to be there,” Griggs said. “It’s walkable, it’s friendly, it’s accessible, it’s beautiful. It reinforces what is unique about Northampton.”

Indeed, the show is carefully orchestrated to do just that. Organizers deliberately leave time in between each set of acts so people have an opportunity to walk around and enjoy the city. Beginning with the Jazz Strut on Friday, Oct. 4, free jazz performances will be staged from 5 to 10:30 p.m. at seven Northampton restaurants, bars, and pubs. Each performance lasts two hours and starts at half-hour intervals so festival-goers can walk a short distance and see all the acts if they choose.

“We want people to have an hour to kill in Northampton,” said Griggs. “We build that into the schedule.”

Saturday features jazz musicians at several different venues across town beginning at noon and ending at 6:30 p.m. The headliner, the Kurt Elling Quintet, will perform from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Academy of Music to close out the performances.

Sunday is reserved for the Jazz Brunch at the Delaney House in Holyoke, which serves as a fundraiser for the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program at JFK Middle School.

All this planning is conducted by a team of locals with a passion for jazz. Griggs and Cahillane are joined by Al Blankenship, Mary Lou Rup, Kathy Service, Carol Abbe Smith, Paul Arslanian, Frank Newton, George Kaye, and a dedicated group of volunteers to get the new show on the road.

And since the inaugural run of the new festival went so well last year, Griggs said there was no need to rethink it in any kind of major way.

“I like this festival for Northampton because it’s doable … it’s not too huge, it’s not too complicated, it’s not too expensive,” she said. “I think it’s more important to have a festival that is right-sized for the community so that it can be sustained, rather than having something that’s growing and getting more complicated and this and that. Before you know it, it becomes top-heavy, and you can’t handle it anymore.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year’s festival, there is little doubt that the 2019 festival will once again prove to be an outstanding event for this unique city.

“That combination of the good feelings that music can engender, combined with being in a town like Northampton … that ultimately has an economic impact,” Griggs said. “You’re setting the stage for success.”

— Kayla Ebner

Sports & Leisure

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]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Refreshing the Data

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has released a new official statement regarding energy drinks, published in the college’s clinical review journal, Current Sports Medicine Reports. “Energy Drinks: A Contemporary Issues Paper” provides guidance and warnings regarding these beverages because of the dangers they present to at-risk populations, primarily children who are the most vulnerable and the target of marketing efforts.

“Energy drinks are extremely popular, and concerns about their consumption are coming from every sector of society, which is why we’ve published these recommendations,” said Dr. John Higgins. “Our review of the available science showed that excessive levels of caffeine found in energy drinks can have adverse effects on cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, renal, and endocrine systems, as well as psychiatric symptoms. More needs to be done to protect children and adolescents, as well as adults with cardiovascular or other medical conditions.”

Energy drinks are highly caffeinated beverages that often contain myriad vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal mixtures. As a global authority for sports medicine, exercise science, and the promotion of participant safety, the ACSM is focused on facilitating high performance while protecting those who compete in athletics or engage in other forms of physical activity. By publishing the new recommendations, the ACSM is helping consumers to understand the risks associated with rapid and excessive consumption of energy drinks.

“When used safely and with moderation, energy drinks may have some short-term, performance-enhancing effects. However, users are generally unaware of the many potential adverse reactions that could have long-term effects, some of which are quite serious,” said Higgins. We highly encourage consumers, parents, physicians, athletic trainers, personal trainers, and coaches to follow these recommendations.”

Children and adolescents appear to be at particularly high risk of complications from energy drinks due to their small body size, being relatively caffeine-naive, and potentially heavy and frequent consumption patterns, as well as the amounts of caffeine. The message that these beverages are not intended for children needs to be reinforced and widely disseminated, Higgins said.

At the same time, he added, marketing should not appeal to vulnerable populations. Currently, manufacturers of energy drinks advertise on websites, social media, and television channels that are highly appealing to both children and adolescents. Target marketing to sporting and other events involving children and adolescents should not be permitted.

Regardless of health and fitness level, and until such time that proper safety and efficacy data are available, the ACSM recommends that energy drinks should be avoided before, during, or after strenuous activities. Some of the deaths allegedly due to energy drinks have occurred when a person consumed them before and/or after performing strenuous activities.

Clearly, Higgins notes, investment in awareness and educational resources highlighting the potential adverse effects and safe use of energy drinks is required. Significant efforts should be made to educate consumers regarding the clear and present differences between soda, coffee, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Energy-drink education also should be a priority in school-based curricula related to nutrition, health, and wellness.

The ACSM is calling for a research agenda to prioritize key questions about the acute and chronic effects of energy-drink use. At a minimum, standard safety and efficacy studies should be performed and submitted to the FDA by manufacturers. Well-designed and controlled research is required to examine the increasing frequency of adverse events being reported by emergency departments.

In addition, the organization notes, healthcare providers must talk to their patients about energy-drink use and report adverse events to watchdog agencies like poison-control centers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the FDA. A national registry should be set up to specifically track energy-drink side effects with mandated reporting requirements.

Among other specific recommendations, the ACSM argues that energy drinks should not be consumed by children or adolescents; should not be consumed by other vulnerable populations, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, caffeine-naive or sensitive individuals, or individuals with cardiovascular or medical conditions; should not be used for sports hydration; should not be mixed with alcohol; and should bear a label such as “high source of caffeine” or “do not mix with alcohol.”

Sections Sports & Leisure

Keeping Score

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

As the region’s only collegiate summer-league baseball team, the Valley Blue Sox are surging both on the field and in the front office, which is celebrating league-topping attendance last year and a growing reputation for on-field success. Those victories didn’t come overnight, but result from both skilled roster building and a recognition that the product should be, above all, affordable and fun.

When Darth Vader or one of his stormtrooper henchmen roam the third-base line, it’s understandable that not every eye is fixed between the white lines of the diamond.

That’s OK, though, in the world of college-level baseball, and particularly the world of the Valley Blue Sox, who have turned MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke into a bona fide summer destination.

“We have to be reaching out through promotions and engaging people who might not otherwise have interest in the game, but they’ll come out for a fireworks show or to see Star Wars characters,” General Manager Hunter Golden told BusinessWest. “There’s a hook, something other than the game.”

That’s true of minor-league and amateur baseball organizations across the country, a culture known as much for its mascot races and bobblehead giveaways — in short, family fun — as for the product it puts on the field. But the Blue Sox are garnering increasing attention in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) for both the crowds it draws, thanks partly to those promotions, and the quality of the play itself, which is turning casual visitors into devoted fans.

It’s a success story that didn’t happen by accident.

This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley.”

In fact, team owner Clark Eckhoff, a veteran of minor-league baseball who oversaw the revival of a team in the Great Lakes region before buying the then-Holyoke Blue Sox in 2013, saw potential in this team and its surroundings, and had a vision for how to grow its popularity.

“This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley,” he said — not to mention the fact that Springfield itself is the largest metro area in the country lacking professional baseball. Consider the success of the AA-level Hartford Yard Goats, who are selling out most of their tilts, and it’s clear a regional appetite for baseball has long existed. The challenge was to field a product — on field and off — to sate it.

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year, and 11th among 169 summer colleague teams.

So far, mission accomplished. Canny roster building (more on that later) resulted in a deep playoff run last year, and a hot start in 2017 that included a nine-game winning streak in mid-June. Off the field, the team’s heavy promotional schedule of giveaways and events, plus ramped-up efforts to engage with the community, have turned the Blue Sox into the NECBL’s top draw, ranking 11th nationally among 169 summer collegiate teams in 2016, and besting the turnout of 20 A-level professional teams — and three AA squads — to boot.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take something literally close to not even existing — based on where the team was trending in 2011 and 2012 — and seeing the fanbase grow,” Eckhoff said. “The majority of these kids will be in A ball in two years, so the quality of baseball is really good, and the other things we do provide a great family experience.

“I love going to Fenway Park,” he added. “It’s the most historic stadium; it’s iconic. But the majority of people can’t afford to go there more than once or twice a summer. Here, tickets are $7 — $5 for kids — with affordable concessions, and you can get autographs from guys who will sign pro contracts in a year or two.”

All that and stormtroopers? It’s proven to be a winning combination, both literally and figuratively.

Call of the East

Eckhoff previously owned the Wausau (Wisconsin) Woodchucks of the Northwoods League for 13 years, and was looking for a change of scenery when he bought the Blue Sox in 2013. When he bought the Woodchucks in 1999, the team was drawing some 600 fans per night. By his 10th year, attendance averaged 2,000. He attributes that to the team getting the word out about the quality of play — some 15 of his players eventually made the majors, including Ben Zobrist — but the fun factor as well.

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting not only talented players, but those who will best fit into the culture of the team and its region.

“There was a study done showing that 80% of fans who walked into a minor-league baseball game were leaving the game in the sixth or seventh inning and couldn’t tell you the opponent or the score, but they knew it was bobblehead night, and that they had enjoyed an affordable night out,” Eckhoff said.

Golden arrived in the baseball-management world much more recently, after parlaying a passion for sabermetrics — an innovative way to analyze a baseball player’s potential by crunching his in-game performance into, essentially, hard math — into a nationally visible role as a blogger and speaker on the subject. That caught the eye of Eckhoff, who tapped Golden as an advisor early on and later offered him the GM’s chair.

They have proven to be a solid team, pairing Eckhoff’s nose for creating a memorable fan experience with Golden’s ability, tested on the fly, to turn his sabermetrics expertise into actual roster building.

It’s a blend of science and art, Golden said, that extends far beyond the numbers.

“The first is key is building the culture you want,” he said. “There’s a lot of great talent out there, but it’s not just about how much talent a kid has. It’s the best kid versus the right kid — finding not only a baseball player who has great ability, but also a kid who’s going to thrive in our area and culture.”

The NECBL has long competed regionally with the Cape Cod Baseball League, and good players concerned with the difference in scenery between the two won’t make good Blue Sox candidates, he went on.

“I tell college coaches, ‘I don’t have a beach. They won’t be taking their parents out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the boardwalk. Guys that prioritize that stuff won’t have success here.’ I want guys who wake up in the morning, and what they’re looking forward to most is grabbing a bat and glove and getting out there to play baseball. That first month, everyone is into it, but when you get into your second month of three-hour bus rides, the first type of kid starts to run out of gas, but the second type of kid wants to be on that bus. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In return, the Blue Sox offer players a robust array of host families — there’s currently a waiting list to house a player for the summer — and activities ranging from trips to Fenway and Cooperstown to gym memberships and opportunities to engage with the community through educational baseball clinics and other events.

It’s a model that makes recruiting easier each season, Golden said. “Schools want to send their guys to us when they see how they’re treated and how they enjoy their time here.”

College students are also paying attention to how successfully NECBL players transition to the pros. In the recent Major League Baseball draft, 11 former Blue Sox players were drafted, led by left-handed pitcher Aaron Leasher, a sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, followed by outfielder Garrett McCain (Tigers, round 10) and catcher Erik Ostberg (Rays, round 13).

Sound Investments

The city of Holyoke has noticed the recent run of Blue Sox success too, and has been making financial investments in the team, including $3,000 to improve the playing surface. The bullpens are also new, and the left-field fence — where long fly balls long went to die — was pulled in to boost home runs and, by extension, excitement.

Eckhoff also credited the businesses that are finding it increasingly rewarding to buy sponsorships in the club. “In the summer, we reap what we sow in the offseason,” he said of those relationships. “That’s what drives the engine — people buying billboards, community nights, ticket sales. It’s become easier for businesses to support you when you’ve got 2,800 fans out there for almost three hours, looking at the signage and hearing public-address announcements promoting businesses. It tends to multiply.”

Hopefully, he added, a new scoreboard is in the works for 2018. “You add some new pieces every year to improve the experience for fans. That’s our goal.”

The key, Golden said, is to take player development seriously, but also understand that families that show up at MacKenzie Stadium want to have a good — even silly — time. That’s where the bobbleheads and ketchup-and-mustard races come in. But the team doesn’t shy away from meaningful displays as well, such as a recent ceremony that honored the World War I hero for whom the stadium is named.

“What keeps the engine going is the fan experience,” Golden said. “The minor-league teams that fail appeal too much to the hardcore baseball guy. You should want as many people as possible to have access to baseball, and that means going out of your way to appeal to non-traditional fans.”

But the sabermetrician and lifelong baseball fan in him certainly appreciates the product he’s helping put on the field.

“There’s not a lot of difference between low-A ball and the best of college baseball,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s great that our community has access to that. It’s affordable entertainment families can enjoy on a Friday night. We’ve been able to do it the right way, and that’s the plan going forward.”

In other words, play ball.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Course Change

Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall says his move to the public-course realm is a learning experience that is ongoing.

Ryan Hall acknowledged that he really didn’t know what to expect when he left the posh private-club realm within the broad business of golf, specifically Avon Country Club in Connecticut, for Springfield’s two public courses, or ‘munis,’ as they’re called, this spring.

But in making that dramatic and somewhat unique career course change, he strongly implied — without actually and officially saying it — that the unknown was and is a better bet for him than something he’d for known for pretty much his entire career.

Thus, his move to Franconia Golf Course and Veterans Memorial Golf Course speaks volumes about the state of this game and what Hall sees happening — or not happening — down the road.

In short, the landscape has changed dramatically across the golf spectrum and at private clubs in particular, especially as the Great Recession put a huge dent in discretionary spending such as club memberships.

“The recession really clobbered the private clubs,” Hall told BusinessWest, adding that the past several years have been, in a word, a struggle — to build and maintain membership and bring more people into the game. “And to me, that model is in real trouble.”

Elaborating, Hall said Avon, like most other clubs like it, is “surviving,” a term that could not have been used, or perhaps even imagined, a few decades ago. And he doesn’t really see that landscape changing in any significant way in the years to come, especially amid conjecture that the Millennial generation is unlikely to enthusiastically embrace the country-club life.

So Hall chose to go work in a far different landscape, the daily-fee world of municipal golf courses, where cash is actually exchanged, there are nine-hole rates, and no one really knows who might walk in the pro-shop door.

As he talked with BusinessWest in his small office in the back of the pro shop at Franconia on Dwight Road, Hall noted that, while he didn’t know what to expect at the city’s two courses, what he’s seen and experienced has nonetheless surprised him in many ways.

Elaborating, he said the crowded sheets for tee times, packed leagues, and steady play all seven days of the week have been somewhat inspiring revelations that have left him feeling pretty good about his career decision.

“It really has shocked me how busy this place and Veterans are; Saturday and Sunday morning, the tee sheets are full from 6 o’clock till noon, and during the week, it’s just non-stop,” he said, adding that people are still playing golf, but more of them are likely to be playing public or semi-private courses rather than private clubs.

Still, Hall, like golf pros everywhere and at public courses as well as private operations, knows that these are ultra-challenging times for the game, and business, of golf.

Young people are not embracing it with the enthusiasm of previous generations, and the cost and time involved with playing 18 are considerable obstacles to those thinking about taking it up.

Thus, public-course managers must be creative — a word you never heard in this business years ago but now hear all the time — and also resilient, and laser-focused on providing something not often thought about in golf until this century: value.

Hall takes over Springfield’s courses at a time of lingering controversy. Well, sort of. His predecessor, Kevin Kennedy, was essentially relieved of his duties amid an investigation involving the Internal Revenue Service. An audit undertaken by the city hinted strongly at revenue skimming on Kennedy’s part as well as a distinct lack of institutional oversight on the city’s part.

The latter seems to be a thing of the past, with a number of new policies, procedures, checks, and balances in place. And the former is mostly in the past as well, said Hall, who is firmly focused on the present and future tenses, which are challenging exercises in their own right.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked at length with Hall about his move to Springfield’s courses and the public-track world, and also about the state of the business and its prospects for the future.

Rough Estimates

As noted earlier, Hall, who grew up in Springfield, played both of its municipal courses, and graduated from Cathedral High School, had really only known the private-course world, career-wise, until last March.

Indeed, he cut his teeth at Springfield Country Club, working in the bag room under long-time pro Harry Mattson Jr., and later served as an assistant to Dave DiRico at Crestview Country Club in Agawam before gravitating to Avon in 2001.

In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

When he later became head pro there, he had a front-row seat, or pro-shop-window view, if you will, to the profound changes that have come to most all private clubs, including exclusive ($25,000 for an initiation fee) clubs like Avon.

“In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

To get his points across, Hall summoned some numbers.

“When I started as an assistant at Avon, we had 425 members and a waiting list,” he noted, adding that many private clubs were similarly healthy at that point. “At Avon right now … we had a very strong membership drive last year, and they’re still below 300 members and no waiting list.

“And this is Avon,” he went on, accenting that word for a reason. “This is what I view as a protected sort of environment, a very affluent area where you would think that a private club would survive very easily. It’s not to say that they won’t, or aren’t, but it became very, very challenging.”

So much so that Ryan eventually became one of two bidders for the contract to manage Springfield’s courses, a career change he described as a “learning experience,” and one that is very much ongoing.

“I’m learning every day — culturally, it’s definitely much different here,” he said in a classic bit of understatement when asked to explain this career move, something he had to do a lot in the spring and is still doing. “When I learned of the opening, I viewed it as an opportunity to do some different things.”

And thus far, as he said, the scene is in most all ways healthier than what he expected (although he didn’t really know what to expect) and healthier than what he left.

Despite a late start — mid-April, as opposed to early April or even late March most years — and some wet weather that wiped out a few precious Saturdays in May, both courses are off to a solid start, revenue-wise and otherwise.

“It’s the end of June, and things are very promising,” he said, adding that the volume of play generally picks up once school is out and students and their teachers are looking for ways to fill their summer days.

And, as noted earlier, one of the things Hall has learned since arriving is that the decline in interest in private clubs has in some ways benefited public courses, or at least those that are in good condition, present a solid test, and offer value.

“We’re seeing groups coming up from Connecticut and groups from Eastern Massachusetts,” he said, adding that the condition of the two courses and their low price ($40 for 18 holes and a cart on a weekend) are attractive selling points, and news, in the form of word-of-mouth referrals, travels fast. “And I enjoy that aspect of it; if I see a group come through on a weekend and I don’t know them, I’ll ask where they’re from, and they’ll say ‘we’re from Glastonbury.’

“Price drives things,” he went on. “They hear $40 with a cart and the course is in great shape, they come and they check it out, and then they go tell their buddies. We’re seeing that happening more and more.”

Still, there are serious challenges confronting all those doing business within the broad realm of golf, said Hall, adding that perhaps the biggest of these involves getting more women and young people involved in the game.

Women have become a particularly stern challenge, and for a number of reasons.

“In the private sector, I’ve watched the level of play among women diminish — it’s very challenging,” he explained. “And it comes down to the commitment — there’s the time involved, but also the cost. When it comes to the household budget, where does golf fall? What’s important, and what’s not?”

But there is another factor involved, one that Hall says he and other club pros might be able to do something about: the intimidation factor.

By that, he meant everything from the difficulty of the sport to the number and complexity of the rules.

“There are women who are definitely intimidated by golf,” he explained. “I spoke to the group here at Franconia, and some were really concerned that some of the women weren’t counting all their strokes.

“Let’s not worry so much about their strokes,” he went on. “Let’s get them out there playing; let’s grab hold of them and get them comfortable and willing to continue golf; let’s not worry about the competitiveness of golf.”

Elaborating, he said his experience at Avon showed that some women don’t like the word ‘tournament,’ or the notion that they have to play for something, be it a trophy, money, or whatever.

And that led to one of those creative strokes he talked about, a group he called the ‘no-holers.’

“We had the 9-hole ladies, the 18-hole ladies, and then the no-holers,” he explained. “We would invite them out late in the afternoon, give them a glass of wine and some cheese, and just talk about golf, maybe show them the course and introduce them to it. We were trying to get them off on a different foot than that fear many of them experience.”

Going for the Green

While Hall is certainly settled in now at Franconia and Veterans, the learning curve, as he called it, continues.

This was the relative unknown that he chose over the world that he had known since the start of his career.

Thus far, his choice seems like a sound course of action in a business — and a game — where there are challenges around every turn and things can change in a hurry.

And where the phrase ‘going for the green’ is definitely a risk-reward scenario.

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

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