Cover Story

Dream Team

River’s Landing Partners Take Their Vision to the Bank
Cover

Cover

A year after opening the doors to their River’s Landing concept at the site of the old Basketball Hall of Fame, partners Peter Pappas and Mike Spagnoli are pleased with the results, but certainly not content. They’re looking to expand their project — and make a broader impact on Springfield’s turnaround efforts.

Mike Spagnoli was working the room at the Onyx Fusion Bar & Restaurant a few weeks ago when one of the patrons got up from his dinner to have a word with him.

He wanted to pass along some compliments about the establishment and his experience that night, and, to help get the job done, let Spagnoli in on something that fellow members of the Springfield Riverfront Development Corp. (SRDC) probably wouldn’t want him to know. Or maybe they would.

“He said that after Peter and I made our original presentation to the board and left the room, members of the committee started laughing out loud — they all had a big laugh,” said Spagnoli, referring to plans, laid out more than three years ago now by himself and partner Peter Pappas, for an entertainment- and fitness-focused complex at the old Basketball Hall of Fame. “One of people on the board announced after we left, ‘what a couple of dreamers.’”

From the tone of these comments, Spagnoli told BusinessWest, he interpreted them to mean that, at least according to this individual, those laughing naysayers on the board were wrong about the two partners and their plans, and that the gleaming complex, which also includes an LA Fitness and ProEX Physical Therapy center, is a dream that has become a successful reality.

Others have said or implied the same thing, said Pappas, who, like Spagnoli, takes enormous pride in hearing such remarks, because they are heard amid a still-vibrant chorus of negativism, doubts, and even rumors of impending closure of one or more of those aforementioned businesses.

“The more people tell us we can’t do something, the more that makes me want to succeed,” Pappas remarked on the first anniversary of the opening of what is called River’s Landing, a $14 million, privately financed project.

Still, both partners know that even if they — and apparently others — are pleased with the performance to date at River’s Landing (despite the recession), there is considerable work to be done if they are to turn more of those naysayers into believers. Indeed, while the partners market themselves extensively, and their complex can be seen by the nearly 200,000 cars that pass by each day on I-91, there remains a lack of awareness on the part of some as to just what has become of the old Hall.

As evidence, Papas referenced a quick tour of the complex he had just given, one that momentarily delayed his conversation with BusinessWest.

“Those two women own a salon in East Longmeadow,” he said as they left for the parking lot. “They said they’d heard some things about us but didn’t really know what we were all about. Now they know, and they say they’ll be back.”

Both partners have given many similar tours over the past several months. They have been part and parcel to a first year in business marked by promising numbers that have met or exceeded projections in the business plan, but also some frustration that doubts persist about this venture and that some, like those salon owners, don’t really know what’s happening across the parking lot from the new Hall of Fame.

“Every day, we’re winning over people,” said Pappas. “But we still have a ways to go; it’s going to take two years before people really believe in us.”

As they mark their first-year anniversary, Spagnoli and Pappas say they’re waging fights on several fronts simultaneously. Building awareness of Onyx is just one of them. Others include hard work to ensure the success of LA Fitness, which is crucial to efforts to convince other national chains that the region (not Springfield by itself) has the requisite demographics for such ventures to thrive.

Meanwhile, the two are exploring any and all options to create more parking in the complex — a clear need — while also working with the other restaurants at the site to promote the riverfront as a destination. And they’re also trying to expand their footprint as well, with development of the neighboring, and vacant, former visitors center into another fitness-related facility — perhaps a racquetball center or a climbing wall.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with the two partners about the state of their vision and the prospects for the future. In doing so, they offered candid remarks on everything from the enormous growth potential of the riverfront to the frustration they’re feeling as they attempt to broaden their impact on the City of Homes and the surrounding region.

Back to the Future

Pappas will sometimes refer to his partner and childhood friend as ‘Dr. Spagnoli.’

That’s a nod to what was, until River’s Landing, the top line on his professional resume.

It seems that in Calabasas, Calif., near Malibu, where he lives and works, Spagnoli, a chiropractic physician, is known to some as the ‘chiropractor to the stars.’ Indeed, his list of clients includes Joe Pesci, Bruce Willis, Hilary Swank, and Priscilla Presley, whom, he says, he helped get ready physically for her stint on Dancing with the Stars.

Spagnoli has done some acting himself; he had a small role in The Last Don, appeared in both Casper movies, and even had a bit part in some 24 episodes that aired two years ago.

But today, most of his attention and his energies are focused on the health of River’s Landing and on helping it play a lead role in the fortunes of Springfield and its riverfront. “This is my primary focus,” he explained. “I put so much time in here I had to hire two full-time doctors to cover me — this is a hell of a commitment.”

Pappas used different and much stronger words to describe his level of investment in this endeavor: “If this didn’t work, they’d take my kids away from me,” he said, referring to the financial limb he’s on. “That’s what I mean when I say I’m 100% committed to this; some say they’re 99% committed … there’s a big difference between 99% and 100%.”

And yet, for all their confidence and commitment to their concept, Spagnoli and Pappas say they can almost understand why there was so much doubt concerning it — almost. The vision was certainly unique for this region, they acknowledged, and the backgrounds the partners brought to the table gave little indication that they could handle a venture of this magnitude.

In the end, said Pappas, the SRDC chose their project because there were no other options. “They picked us because they essentially had nothing else, and I mean nothing else,” he explained, referring to a limited list of alternatives topped by a public-market concept based loosely on a model in Portland, Me. “If they had anything else, they would have taken it; that’s how little faith people really had in this.”

Spagnoli had faith in the vision almost from the moment Pappas told him about his idea for the old Hall soon after he mpotored by it about 3 1/2 years ago.

“I was in my car drinking a coffee when I called Mike in LA,” Pappas explained. “I said, ‘I just drove by the old Hall of Fame, it’s been vacant for a while. I don’t know what they’re doing with it, but wouldn’t that make a great sports and entertainment complex?’”

Said Spagnoli, “I’m in my car and I close my eyes for a quick second and pictured it. I’ve had three sports medicine clinics within LA Fitness facilities in California, and I knew that LA Fitness was looking to expand, so I immediately felt it. I said, ‘Peter that’s an unbelievably great idea — let’s do it.’”

But it would take a long time for the two to take the concept even one step beyond their collective imaginations. In fact, it took almost a year just to get before the SRDC, tell the members about their idea, and, as they found out later, get laughed at.

As the two recounted for BusinessWest, there was little support among area elected officials, some of whom seemed bent on seeing a publicly funded project in the old Hall of Fame.

“There was not one politician who wanted us to do this, because there was nothing in it for them because it was a private business,” said Pappas, who quickly amended that statement, noting support from former state Sen. Brian Lees, former Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan, and, to a lesser extent, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.

And while trying to sell their concept to elected leaders, the two were also pitching it to LA Fitness, and it wasn’t an easy sell, said Pappas. That’s because this was a new model for the chain, which usually has stand-alone facilities in retail centers, and also because Springfield’s demographics usually frighten off national chains.

“The demographics for Springfield are horrible — the average household income in the city is $30,000, and the national average is $42,000 — that’s how bad it is,” he told BusinessWest. “So what we had to do was sell them on the demographics for the region, which are much better. We convinced them that this location is easy to get to from Agawam, from the West Side, from East Longmeadow, from Longmeadow. Still, this was a leap of faith for them.”

As for the SRDC, at least from the partners’ perspective, it seemed the only hope for the site, but still a laughing matter.

“They never thought we could do it,” said Spagnoli. “To this day, I don’t think they ever thought we were for real.”

More Food for Thought

Spagnoli told BusinessWest that he brought some props with him to that climactic SRDC meeting during which the board was going to choose a development team.

One was a pie plate on a stick, which he held in the air to signify ‘pie in the sky,’ or his take on the public-market proposal, which, at one point, Pappas referred to as “an expensive tomato stand.” The other was a rock, chosen to indicate the partners’ belief that their concept was rock-solid.

Whether the board actually had no real choice as to which project to award the nod, as Pappas suggests, remains a matter of speculation. But even after River’s Landing was chosen, and a year after it opened, the two partners still find themselves having to prove that this complex is, indeed, worthy of that rock.

They say the numbers from Onyx’ first year in business, half of which comprised a recognized recession that some say is the worst in 70 years, are, in fact, solid. Spagnoli said there were 350 people in the restaurant that night when he was pulled aside by the SRDC member, and there have been many evenings like that, despite the pronounced downturn.

“These are not great times for anyone, and that includes the restaurant business,” Pappas told BusinessWest. “But we’re doing very well considering the times we’re in.”

They attribute this to a combination of factors — from the fusion menu to the uniqueness of the facility — that give the restaurant a decidedly different look and feel. “One compliment we hear all the time,” said Pappas, “is people saying, ‘we don’t feel like we’re in Western Mass. when we’re here — we feel like we’re in Boston or New York or LA”

The partners said they created Onyx, which wasn’t really part of the original plan, because they simply couldn’t find the right chain for the site, although there were a few offers. “Remember, chains don’t believe in Springfield,” said Pappas, adding that, as a result, he and Spagnoli blueprinted a different kind of facility, one that blends fine dining with entertainment and a club-like atmosphere.

Pappas and Spagnoli acknowledge that times are tough, but they have no regrets about what would seem to most to be poor timing for a complex with businesses dependent on discretionary spending.

“I wouldn’t change our timing at all, even if I could,” said Pappas. “The nice thing about being in lean times is that it helps you to operate lean. It also pushes us to provide more value to people, because that’s what they’re looking for; they’ll still go out and spend that $50 or $100 for dinner for two, but they want value for it.”

To accentuate that emphasis on value, the two partners have created a special promotion, called the “Onyx experience” — dinner for two and a bottle of wine for $50 — which Spagnoli calls “affordable elegance.”

As for the other components of River’s Landing, Pappas and Spagnoli said both tenants are off to good starts. The two stressed repeatedly that LA Fitness does not disclose numbers, so they used words instead.

“They’re doing extremely well here,” said Spagnoli. “They’ve become believers in Springfield and this region, and that faith is being rewarded.”

Court of Opinion

But while they’re generally pleased with the first-year results, the partners are in no way content. There are several initiatives, in various stages of advancement, they are pursuing to bolster the River’s Landing venture, the riverfront as a whole, the Columbus Avenue corridor, and Springfield’s downtown.

They are taking a lead role, for example, in the creation of the Riverfront Restaurant Assoc., which will work to market the five eateries in the Hall of Fame complex — Onyx, Max’s Tavern, Pazzo’s, Pizzeria Uno, and Samuel’s sports bar — as a destination, and otherwise work to improve the competitive position of that cluster.

The theory, said Spagnoli, is that restaurants grouped in one tight area can grow the pie for the individual players, not create competitive disadvantages — and there is ample evidence (Northampton is the best example in this market, he says) that the theory is valid.

“In California, the most-successful places I’ve been to, and this is up and down the coast, have projects very similar to this one, with a theme,” he explained. “And there are at least four to seven great restaurants in close proximity to one another.”

Pappas nodded his head in agreement, and said the region can easily support such a cluster of residents, with some aggressive marketing and maybe a little help from the economy.

“There are 600,000 people living within a 10- or 15-mile radius of this point,” he said. “And there are 180,000 cars going by every day on I-91; this is not a small market.”

This is a point that both partners make to retail-chain executives and investors with whom they’ve discussed Springfield in general, the old York Street Jail site, and properties on both sides of Columbus Avenue. Such discussions are just one indication that Pappas and Spagnoli don’t want to stop with River’s Landing.

Indeed, the two responded to a request for qualifications concerning the Court Square property, which has been vacant for several years. They submitted a plan for either a boutique hotel or market-rate apartments — something they say is needed to spark some life in the central business district — and were disappointed not to be among those development teams chosen to move on to the next stage in the process.

“I didn’t even get a call to discuss the RFQ — apparently they wanted bigger names,” said Pappas. “That was nearly two years ago, and the building is still sitting empty; it’s very frustrating.”

He used that same word to describe what’s happening (or not happening) with the visitors center.

“We would like to expand in there and we’re ready to go,” he said, referring to two stated options — racquetball courts or a climbing wall that was part of the original vision for River’s Landing and the only piece that didn’t become reality. “It’s really frustrating how slowly things are moving, but hopefully we can get something done.”

As they talked about the present and the future, both partners recalled something Ryan s
id to them at the groundbreaking for River’s Landing.

“He hugged me, and Peter said, ‘continue to help us take this city back block by block,’” said Spagnoli. “That’s where it begins, with one block, or one building. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Dream Weavers

Hanging on a wall in the front lobby at Onyx is a framed copy of a page from the May 9, 2007 edition of the New York Times. The headline reads “Glimmers of Hope in Springfield, Massachusetts.”

There are two photos accompanying the story relating progress in the City of Homes — one depicting construction of the new home for Performance Food Group in the industrial park created on land adjacent to Smith & Wesson, and the other showing the transformation of the old Hall of Fame, roughly eight months away from completion.

The partners said they placed the story there to display their pride in being part of a turnaround they say is still very much a work in progress, and an effort they want to play a bigger role in.

Time will tell if River’s Landing becomes all that its creators hope it will, and if they can expand upon that venture with other initiatives on the riverfront and perhaps well beyond it.

But one thing is for sure. No one is laughing at these two dreamers anymore.

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

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