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Weathering the Storms

Lynn Gray

Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall.

As she talked with BusinessWest, Lynn Gray and her staff were gearing up for February school vacation.

It’s always a busy time at the Holyoke Mall, which Gray serves as general manager, as young people and families look for things to do. But these days, it’s even more so as ever-larger amounts of the mall’s 1.6 million square feet of space become dedicated to entertainment-related ventures rather than pure retail — although there’s still plenty of that as well.

Indeed, over the past several years, former retail spaces have given way to tenants like All In Adventures (billed as the ‘ultimate escape destination’), Altitude Trampoline Park, Round1 Bowling & Arcade; Planet Fitness; and Billy Beez, a massive play area that is home to twisting slides, sports courts, tunnels, trampolines, and more.

This is a national trend, said Gray, noting that, as major retailers — ranging from Sears and JCPenney to Christmas Tree Shops and Best Buy — close stores, their former spaces have found new lives in non-retail-related uses. And malls have become even busier during Christmas break, February vacation, and other times when the weather is less conducive to outdoor fun.

“People are looking for something to do that week indoors,” she said. “During February break, it will be pretty busy, especially if the weather is inclement. Then in April, it will be a little softer just because things are warming up a little, but it’s still a busy week for us; we staff up for it, and retailers and other tenants have a lot of specials.”

This trend is just one of the storylines at the mall, perhaps the largest commercial real-estate property in the region, and one that has become a topic of conversation and speculation in the wake of a changing retail landscape, one that has seen many national chains downsize or even disappear from the landscape (Sears and Toys R Us, for example), ever-larger amounts of shopping conducted online, and some malls, including two locally (Eastfield and Enfield), being repurposed into mixed-use facilities or moving quickly in that direction.

“While we were shut down during the pandemic, we were still concurrently trying to roll with the changes that were about to come over the next couple of years. Some brands went away, and some remained relevant.”

Gray, who first worked at the mall when she was 15 selling gift certificates and has fashioned a career managing such facilities, said the facility has certainly been impacted by these trends, but, while some other malls are suffering, Holyoke continues to thrive, and for several reasons.

She lists everything from its incredible location — at the intersection (literally) of the Mass Pike and I-91 (off which it has its own exit) to its still-healthy mix of retailers, restaurants, and entertainment-based businesses, to some of that downsizing among many retail giants. Indeed, Holyoke now boasts the only locations for Best Buy, Apple Store, and Macy’s for at least 30 miles in any direction, and in some cases, it’s a much larger area.

The Holyoke Mall

The Holyoke Mall encompasses 1.6 million square feet of space and is in an almost constant state of change.
(Photo by Glenn Labay, Aerial Camera Services)

And with those stores and that location … people want to get to Holyoke, and they can get there, rather easily, she said, adding that these ‘differentiators,’ as she called them, not only attract visitors, but new tenants as well.

“We’ve certainly seen the benefits of that market consolidation,” she said, adding that this and other factors contributed to what was a very solid holiday season at the mall. While the final numbers are not in yet, most mall tenants came out of December happy with their results, she noted

And those same retailers are saying that, while overall visitation is down slightly — data shows the mall is drawing 99% of the total visitors it drew in 2021 and 98% of the number in 2022, 9 million overall — those who do find their way there are generally spending more, on average.

“We’re easily accessible off of 90 and 91, and we’re in a position to tap a much larger market than some of the regional properties that were or still are in the market.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing change and evolution experienced by every mall continues at Holyoke, said Gray, adding that there have been several intriguing additions in recent months and renovations planned at several outlets.

For this issue, we talked with Gray about all that and much more as the mall braces first for February school vacation, and then continued response to that changing scene in retail.


Setting Sale

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest, Gray stopped at Monsoon Bistro, one of the newer additions to the mall, taking the spot formerly occupied by Ruby Tuesday near the Macy’s entrance.

It’s one of many new restaurants that have opened in the mall over the past year, several of them growing local businesses, she said, adding that these are some examples of how malls, and especially the one in Holyoke, are in a state of nearly constant change. These changes reflect national trends, changes to the economy, and ebb and flow within the world of retail.

one of many recent additions at the Holyoke Mall

Garage, a casual clothing brand for young women, is one of many recent additions at the Holyoke Mall.

Overall, 25 new brands have called the mall home since the pandemic arrived in 2020, she said, adding that COVID certainly contributed to the changing of the landscape.

“While we were shut down during the pandemic, we were still concurrently trying to roll with the changes that were about to come over the next couple of years,” she explained. “Some brands went away, and some remained relevant.”

Elaborating, Gray noted that 24,000 square feet of mall space got converted into new openings over the past year alone, with 12 new businesses setting up shop.

“It was a good mix of retail, which is still our bread and butter,” she said, listing new arrivals such as Garage (which touts itself as a “casual clothing brand for young women who are fun and effortlessly sexy); Snipes, a global streetwear retailer now boasting more than 450 locations; a few new jewelers, including Mandati, King’s, and the Inspiration Co.; a Verizon store; and others.

“Those types of facilities are bringing a more eclectic mix of shoppers — all ages, all groups.”

Meanwhile, as noted, the new arrivals extend to the restaurant side of the ledger and even the food court, with the addition of El Burrito, a growing local venture that took over space formerly occupied by Wendy’s; and Terra Nossa Brazilian Grill, which replaced a former McDonald’s.

In most respects, 2023 was a better-than-average year for signing new leases with smaller, sometimes local retailers, an annual assignment for malls, while also backfilling some of the much larger spaces left by the departure of major retailers, in this case ranging from Sears to Toys R Us to A.C. Moore.

Often, such backfilling takes years, Gray said, noting, for example, that the Sears at the Holyoke Mall has been closed for nearly a decade, and its space has not yet been fully repurposed. Sports Zone, a specialty operator featuring sports memorabilia, is occupying the first level of that large footprint, and in years past, Spirit Halloween has taken some of that space on a seasonal basis, but the second level remains vacant.

But many spaces have been successfully filled, she went on, adding that this was the case with the departure of Christmas Tree Shops (which went to Holyoke Crossing and then eventually closed that location), with that space now occupied by Bob’s Stores, and the former Sports Authority space, now occupied by Dick’s Warehouse Sale.

Still, increasingly, these spaces are going to more entertainment-related uses, said Gray, noting the arrival over the past several years of several such ventures that have taken rather large footprints at the mall.

For example, Planet Fitness and Altitude have each claimed 20,000 square feet in space formerly occupied by Babies R Us, she said, noting that both arrived just prior to the pandemic. Round1, which arrived around that same time, is also a large tenant, with 20 bowling lanes and a number of arcade games, as is Billy Beez.


What’s in Store

And these new ventures are thriving in these spaces, she said, adding that the mall’s location makes them easy to get to, and together, they make the mall a more attractive destination for families, who can package a visit to one or a few of those facilities, and then a stop for lunch, into a day at the mall during February vacation or any other time when being indoors in preferable.

El Burrito, a growing local venture

El Burrito, a growing local venture that took over space formerly occupied by Wendy’s, is one of several new restaurant options at the mall.

The Planet Fitness facility is in a different category, she went on, but it is also doing very well in this mall’s location. “It’s easily accessible … people go there before work and after work. Their membership is very comparable to their off-mall locations, and you can walk by there on a Tuesday afternoon and see lots of people there.”

Overall, the mall is in a better place than it has been in terms of square footage currently occupied, she said, adding that policies set by mall owner Pyramid Corp. did not permit more detail on that subject. And, by and large, it is in a good place when it comes to taking on the many challenges facing malls today, for those reasons mentioned earlier.

“We’re easily accessible off of 90 and 91, and we’re in a position to tap a much larger market than some of the regional properties that were or still are in the market,” she said. “And then having differentiators, like the only Macy’s, the only Apple, the only Best Buy in the market, that really sets us apart for retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues looking for a new home. Having those traffic draws is very attractive to potential new tenants.”

Looking ahead as far as she can, Gray said the mall is positioned as well as any mall can be to absorb the many changes to the retail landscape.

Indeed, data shows that those who come to the mall — and she said it is still a good mix of young and old — are actually coming more often, because of all that now exists under that collection of roofs.

“People are coming more frequently because of the entertainment offerings and lifestyle offerings,” she told BusinessWest. “Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a Planet Fitness at your local shopping mall. Now that there is that option, people are visiting the property more.

“Those types of facilities are bringing a more eclectic mix of shoppers — all ages, all groups,” she went on. “And then, you have places like Altitude and Round1 and Billy Beez, where your families, your teens, they’re coming out for birthday parties, tournaments, or the different types of events they have going on. They’re coming, and they’re staying for a while.”

When asked about what the landscape will look like in five or 10 years, Gray said change will remain a constant — in retail and in entertainment — with up-and-coming chains in the former, and new experiences, such as next-level escape rooms, in the latter.

The goal at the Holyoke Mall is to be at the forefront of all of that, she said, adding that the facility has been there for the first 45 years of its existence, and she intends to keep it there.


Hampshire County

Prodigy Offers Fresh Entertainment Alternative

By Mark Morris

Jeff Bujak says he designed the mini-golf course to challenge everyone who plays it.

When game designers evaluate a new concept, one of the most important considerations is for the game to deliver a fun and different experience every time it’s played.

Jeff Bujak, owner of Prodigy Mini Golf & Game Room in Easthampton, applies that same standard to his business.

“I want folks to view the experience at Prodigy as one where they haven’t had enough. I want people to say, ‘there are about 2,000 games I haven’t played yet, so I’m going to keep coming back.’”

Actually, there are currently 2,198 games available at Prodigy, and that’s one reason why the company website describes it as “a gamer’s wonderland.”

Located on the ground floor of the Eastworks mill complex, the 8,000-square-foot game room is the culmination of Bujak’s past experiences as a musician and game player, and his passion for creating things that didn’t exist before.

Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., he spent 15 years traveling the country as a solo keyboard player and as part of the band Somebody’s Closet. He moved to Northampton for its well-known music scene in 2004. Tired of life on the road and sleeping on people’s couches, he decided in 2015 that he’d had enough of life on the road and left music for what he called “a stable paycheck with daytime hours.”

While working in the IT department at Viability, a human-services provider in Northampton, Bujak had the idea of a business that featured a mini-golf course and board games. Meanwhile, around that same time, his wife opened Small Oven, a bakery in Easthampton.

“I could see that Easthampton had real positive energy for business, so I started telling bakery customers about my idea for an entertainment complex,” he recalled. When he presented his business plan to Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, it proved to be a winning move.

“When I first met Jeff, I knew that Prodigy was going to happen at Eastworks,” Bundy said. “Eastworks is a community of creative and entrepreneurial businesses. Prodigy and its unique view on games and gaming is a perfect fit for us.”

Flipping the Switch

The original proposal was for a mini-golf course and board-game room with no video games that would be called Analog. When Bujak saw how much space was available at Eastworks, he refined his idea and decided to offer more entertainment options. As a collector of video games and their consoles, he knew he could easily include those into the game room.

Most of the video-game offerings are on consoles like NES, Sega, and ColecoVision, which are no longer produced. Bujak has connected them to TV sets from 20 to 30 years ago because the games work best on the older sets.

“I want to keep this place fun for real gamers. When someone plays Mario, they expect it to react the way it did when they were younger, so you need the older TVs to get that.”

Prodigy is positioned as a game room for ages 13 and up. As a result, Bujak said some of the younger players have never seen televisions with picture tubes and often ask for help in turning them on.

Prodigy offers 26 retro video-game consoles that work best on older TV monitors.

The nostalgia doesn’t end with video games, as Bujak proudly pointed out that, instead of serving alcohol, Prodigy offers vintage sodas such as Yoo-hoo, Mellow Yello, and Hawaiian Punch to put customers in a nostalgic mood.

Bujak considered naming the game room after himself, but Bundy suggested that choosing a an edgy word people could relate to might be more effective. After researching several candidates, Bujak landed on ‘prodigy,’ loosely defined as ‘young and smart.’

“My vision was for a place that was ‘young’ in the sense that it always offered something fresh, and ‘smart’ because it encouraged people to use their brains in a fun way,” he said.

He envisioned a game room with one admission price, and every game is then free to play, intentionally countering the typical business model of an arcade, where admission is free and customers pay for each game they play.

All-day admission on Wednesdays and Thursdays costs $10 “per human” and increases to $12 Friday through Sunday. Monthly memberships and discount punch cards for small groups are also available. Bujak said he wants to keep his focus on providing value to people who visit Prodigy.

“I will often ask myself, ‘what does $12 get you at a movie theatre compared to the experience at Prodigy?’ Did my customers get their $12 worth?”

Opened in March 2018, Prodigy features a rich mix of retro video games, classic pub games, and stacks of board games. Winding its way throughout the game room is a challenging 18-hole mini-golf course Bujak designed and built himself. As someone who won mini-golf tournaments in the past, he researched courses and game rooms throughout the Northeast to come up with a fresh design for his course.

“My vision was for a place that was ‘young’ in the sense that it always offered something fresh, and ‘smart’ because it encouraged people to use their brains in a fun way.”

“I wanted to throw a whole different angle on mini-golf course design,” he said. “I’ve tried to incorporate some of the decision making players are confronted with in video games and apply that to mini-golf. “

He explained further that, like a video game, many of the holes on the course offer several paths to aim for, all with different consequences.

Next Level

Business has been brisk, with Bujak doubling his first year’s projections. Along the way, he has also been making adjustments to the room and game choices to make sure the appeal stays fresh.

“I see my key demographics as people in their 30s,” he said, adding that couples in their 30s will often come together to Prodigy to play competitively with a board game or a four-player video game. If they want to play cooperatively, they can form a band and play Guitar Hero.

Bujak has also found that Prodigy is a great place for first dates.

“You can really get to know someone better when you are having a conversation over a game — not to mention what you learn about a person when you see how they handle winning and losing,” he said. Because Prodigy doesn’t serve alcohol, it’s also a safe place to ‘break the ice’ with someone.

“While we host plenty of families and friends, our place appeals to folks who don’t know each other well, but end up knowing each other better at the end of the experience,” he noted.

With that dynamic in mind, he sees hosting business groups as a growth opportunity for Prodigy in 2020. “Because games bring out the competitive and cooperative nature in us, I feel we can offer companies a great place for team-building events and networking opportunities.”

From day-long rentals to single meetings, Bujak said Prodigy is set up with plenty of audio-visual support, including a 10-foot-wide screen for PowerPoint and video presentations and seating to accommodate up to 40 participants.

Recently, Bujak hosted his former co-workers from Viability, who took part in several staff days. This experience assured him that Prodigy can be an effective location for off-site business meetings.

“When you have a social event with a game theme, it generates conversation in ways other gatherings don’t,” he said, adding that “competing with yourself or with others creates healthy competition, which is good for your mind and good for productivity.” 

Prodigy has found success early on as a place where people bring their friends to share a fun place they’ve discovered, which is right in line with Bujak’s marketing strategy.

“From the beginning, I’ve told people that Prodigy is not like any other place,” he said. “It’s something you have to come and see.”