Former Auto Dealership Is Transformed into a Unique Retail FacilityThe Balise Ford dealership on Route 20 in Westfield closed its doors in 2007, and as the years went by, it remained vacant, becoming somewhat of an eyesore in the city, visible to everyone traveling along that busy thoroughfare.
But while most saw a troubled property beset with challenges when it comes to reuse, Nabil Hannoush developed a far different view. The Westfield resident, vice president of the Hannoush Jewelers chain and serial entrepreneur, saw it as an ideal location for a retail plaza and home to many separate but nonetheless synergistic businesses that he and his wife, Julie, had created or were planning.
Today, thanks to that vision and a determination to make it reality, the 11-acre property is being transformed into a center that now houses several retail enterprises, many of them health-related, including a restaurant, a baseball-and-softball training center called Extra Innings, and fitness facilities. And there could be many more added in the years to come as the Hannoushes advance plans to expand the plaza through new construction.
“I drove by the property every day for years and always thought it was a great location,” said Nabil, adding that it is positioned at the gateway to the city near the border with West Springfield and is easily accessible.
Talk about the property turned to action last year when the Hannoushes closed on the former dealership. They soon relocated the Extra Innings franchise they had acquired in Agawam into the facility and commenced buildout for an eatery they would call ShortStop Bar & Grill, which opened late last fall. The couple is also renovating space in the building to house Expert Fitness Health Club, which they acquired three years ago and is currently located further west on Route 20, and has plans to move still another business they own, East Longmeadow-based All Team Apparel, onto the site.
The various enterprises will support one another, and in some cases they already are, said Nabil, noting that sports teams and family members coming to watch them train are supporting the restaurant, and those teams will likely patronize All Team Apparel. And this base of retail establishments should attract other businesses to that location for other phases of its development.
Overall, Hannoush envisions five phases, with two, Shortstop and Extra Innings, already completed. Phase 3 is the new Expert Fitness, while phase 4 will involve erecting a new, 6,000-square-foot retail center on the east side of the property, while phase 5 will see another 18,000-square-foot retail facility on the west side of the site, plans that have been approved by the city.
Hannoush hopes phases 4 and 5 will include health- and wellness-related businesses and possibly a bank branch.
For now, though, the Hannoushes are focused on driving business to the existing enterprises and continuing to find imaginative ways to repurpose the space that once housed a showroom, service bays, a parts department, and other features of an automobile dealership.
Indeed, the existing building held some unusual challenges, including a dozen oversized garage doors, built to allow vehicles to enter and exit the auto dealership and repair bays.
Hannoush’s original plans were to gut the interior, remove the doors, and fill in the space. “But one night, I thought, if kept them, we could have an indoor-outdoor facility that would allow people to walk through the building and enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “Teens and young people playing baseball or softball could enjoy the breeze when the doors were open or go outside and play catch or practice.”So the garage doors remain, and last summer, parents were able to watch their children practice while they waited outside.
“My hope was to build something that Westfield and Western Mass. can be proud of,” said Hannoush. “But I had to keep thinking outside the box because I wanted to create something that is different.”
Barry Wadsworth, director of operations for the complex and general manager of ShortStop Bar and Grill on the property, said the project is an exciting venture that compelled him to get involved.
The founder of the Holyoke Blue Sox met Hannoush after selling 51% of the team, and was captivated by his plans.
“Nabil’s vision is very exciting because he wants to make this a place the entire community can enjoy,” Wadsworth said, adding that it was the ideal location for the Hannoush family to expand its health-related businesses.
“Expert Fitness has more than 2,500 members; they needed a bigger location, and this building is a perfect fit,” he explained. “It allowed them to consolidate the gym, batting cages, and sporting-goods store associated with Extra Innings into one location.”
The new, 10,000-square-foot Expert Fitness has been under construction for some time on the west side of the building and is expected to open March 1. However, the Cage, a facility housing programs that fall into the category of extreme fitness, is already operational in a different area of the building, and a protein-shake bar is being built outside the indoor entrance to the gym, a few steps away from the entrance to the restaurant.
“The Cage holds hardcore classes that include indoor and outdoor boot camps, spinning, and group fitness,” Hannoush said. “It is one of the first of its kind in the country, and from April to November, we have what we are calling ‘Muscle Beach Westfield,’ a weightlifting station outside.
“It’s something different,” he went on, as he alluded again to his efforts to “think outside the box.”
That phrase can certainly be used in conjunction with ShortStop, which opened Dec. 19. It is technically a sports bar, but one with a decidedly different look and feel.
A fireplace burns brightly as diners relax in a cheerful room with rich, mahogany furniture and three walls of enormous windows. And although 36 flatscreen TVs are placed strategically above the tables in the bar and dining area, Nabil said Julie designed it to be welcoming to women.
“Typical sports bars are not doing well throughout the country because they are not female-friendly; they are often too loud,” Nabil explained, adding that the décor was carefully chosen and the atmosphere is suitable for families. The menu, meanwhile, includes everything from filet mignon to burgers to a wide array of healthy choices, including different types of salads, along with gourmet desserts created by executive chef Monica Hannoush, the owners’ daughter.
The sound of bats striking baseballs and softballs can be heard within ShortStop, at least when the doors are open, because it is separated from Extra Innings by a 2,000-square-foot area known informally as Ball Park Seating.
It contains a 10-by-15-foot flatscreen TV with eight speakers, smaller flatscreens on another walls, and tables that overlook the batting-cage tunnels. Some families choose to eat there and watch their children practice, and it is the setting for live entertainment on Friday nights.
“The area was packed on Super Bowl Sunday,” said Wadsworth. “Groups of 10 and 12 came here to watch the game.”ShortStop opened with little fanfare, and it has not done any advertising, but word has spread quickly, and business is brisk.
“Parents come here while their children are practicing and have lunch or order food to take home,” said Wadsworth, adding that Extra Innings provides a fairly steady stream of customers, and the new Expert Fitness is expected to do the same. “Many are here so frequently, we know their names.”
The sports bar features a bump-out with an 1,300 additional square feet that was added to the building to create the dining room. Garage doors that remain will open onto the patio, which is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
A new, 1,800-square-foot banquet room is also under construction to accommodate requests from teams. One side features the oversized doors, which will allow the room to be opened to the outdoors in the summer.
“We plan to use every inch of the 38,000 square feet in the building and have added an additional 2,500 square feet in the restaurant and patio,” Wadsworth said.
All Team Apparel will soon move into the building, creating more synergy, he noted. “Teams who come here to practice will be able to get shirts and uniforms. This will become almost a one-stop shop for youth leagues due to the sporting-goods shop associated with Extra Innings.”
One of the primary goals the Hannoushes have set is to have the property become a gathering place for the community, a setting for everything from more big games like the Super Bowl to fund-raising events; from youth birthday parties to summer concerts that can take place on a stage being built in the ShortStop’s patio area.
And Wadsworth believes it can and will become just that.
“I want the community to think of this place first when they are trying to raise money for a good cause; we want to use the facility to help people, and the sheer numbers that drive by on Route 20 are huge,” he said. “Everyone who comes here has a really good time. It’s a lot of fun, and people meet each other when they are using the batting cages or eating in the restaurant. It’s becoming a destination.”
Not many people could have imagined such a fate for the old Ford dealership, but the Hannoushes certainly did.
And their vision has become not only reality, but an inspiration.