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Holyoke Conceptualizes Olympic-style Sports Complex

Cesar Ruiz says the planned facility could make Holyoke the “sports capital of New England.”

Cesar Ruiz says the planned facility could make Holyoke the “sports capital of New England.”


Cesar Ruiz admits that the first time he and Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia discussed the notion of bringing a sports complex to the Paper City, one that could potentially become the new home to the Volleyball Hall of Fame, the talk “pretty much went in one ear and out the other.”

That was roughly two years ago, and Ruiz said his lack of enthusiasm had less to do with the concept, which he has long championed, and far more to do with the many other things he had going on his life, especially the East Longmeadow-based home-care and healthcare staffing agency called Golden Years, the venture he started with a few partners and has led to rapid and dramatic growth, so much that he was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2020.

“The feasibility study indicates that we can draw from multiple areas and bring people to Holyoke. We’re not approaching this as a regular sports facility, but a venue that can draw regionally and from several different states.”

With that company on firmer ground and, increasingly, being managed by his children, Ruiz was more responsive when the subject of a sports complex came up again at the beginning of 2023.

“Timing is important,” he told BusinessWest. “When I was asked to take a look at it again and see what it might look like … I had a completely different reaction to it.”

In fact, you could say that he took the ball and ran with it, undertaking feasibility studies; engaging Florida-based Sports Facilities Co. (SFC), which has built what Ruiz has in mind for Holyoke in several municipalities around the globe, for an initial concept; and then putting together a team, called the USA International Sports Complex Group, to advance this initiative.

Conceptual renderings of the sports complex planned for Holyoke, one that will include everything from athletic fields and indoor courts to a hotel and a new home for the Volleyball Hall of Fame.

The concept has progressed to the point where Ruiz, Garcia, other city officials, representatives of the Volleyball Hall of Fame, and other officers with USA International Sports Complex Group felt ready to announce the plans to the public.

Which they did, at a well-attended press conference at the Volleyball Hall of Fame on Feb. 6.

They announced plans for what they called “an Olympic-style sports complex,” one featuring a main indoor athletic facility that would boast everything from basketball and volleyball courts to an arcade area, laser tag, ‘boutique bowling,’ batting cages, pickleball, and more, as well as outdoor athletic facilities to include a synthetic turf field and baseball and softball fields.

These facilities come with a total price tag estimated at between $50 million and $90 million, said Ruiz, adding that, while this will be a privately funded facility, MassDevelopment and other state agencies have been approached about potential involvement.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia says talk of a sports complex has been ongoing in Holyoke for many years.

In an interview prior to that news conference, Ruiz told BusinessWest that he wants to make Holyoke the sports capital of New England, and this project will become the vehicle for doing so and, in the process, bring in an estimated $41 million in new economic activity to the city.

‘We want to put Holyoke on the map, starting with volleyball — this will be the new home of the Volleyball Hall of Fame,” he said. “But it will be much more than that; this facility will have several sites and include many different sports venues for people of all ages — young and old — and will also include a hotel.

“It’s a very ambitious initiative,” he went on, adding that it will be built in phases, with the first of them hopefully to be completed by the end of 2026. “The feasibility study indicates that we can draw from multiple areas and bring people to Holyoke. We’re not approaching this as a regular sports facility, but a venue that can draw regionally and from several different states.”

Garcia agreed, adding that that talk of a sports complex has been ongoing in Holyoke for many years, and it became a priority of his administration to turn the talk into action. Doing that will require leadership and partnerships on several levels, he told BusinessWest, noting that Ruiz and his administration are providing the former, while the latter will involve several stakeholders, many of them still to be determined.

“I’m excited about what this sports complex could mean for the trajectory of our city,” the mayor said. “This would be a huge part of the resurgence of Holyoke.”


Court of Opinion

In that interview with BusinessWest, Garcia said Holyoke likes to “punch above its weight class.”

That’s a boxing term, obviously, now used in many different contexts, to describe underdogs taking on heavy favorites, for example, or, in this case, a smaller community trying to take on initiatives perhaps more suited to larger municipalities.

Renovation of the historic Victory Theatre, an ongoing, 30-year initiative in this city, might fall into that category. And this sports complex certainly would as well, said Garcia, adding that it’s an ambitious undertaking, but a poignant next step for a community that has, indeed, been surging in recent years, and on many levels.

These include entrepreneurship — especially within the minority population, with dozens of new businesses opening in recent years, many of them in a rebounding downtown — but also housing; education; new clean-energy businesses, such as Clean Crop Technology, which uses electricity to “revolutionize food safety”; and especially a burgeoning cannabis cluster, which has made effective use of the city’s huge inventory of old mill space for dispensaries and growing facilities alike.

The next frontier, if one chooses to call it that, could — and should — be sports, said the mayor, adding that the city has a strong tradition in this realm, which crosses many sports and several decades and includes everything from volleyball to Golden Gloves boxing to the Holyoke Blue Sox baseball team.

“Holyoke is a sports city; it always has been — we have very robust youth programs, baseball, basketball, football, and more, and the pipeline goes into our high schools,” Garcia said. “And that extends to recreational softball — we have people from across this region and into Connecticut that come to Holyoke to play in two softball leagues.

“One of the things we struggle with in Holyoke is adequate space for people to play, recreationally, but also tournaments; we don’t have the kind of capacity to host large-scale tournaments,” he went on, adding that the sports complex now on the drawing board would address this need and, while doing so, bring people to the city, providing a boost to existing businesses and perhaps fueling new ones.

“Couple this need for such a facility with the fact that Holyoke is the birthplace of volleyball and home to the Volleyball Hall of Fame, and we thought that this has to happen here — it has to happen in Holyoke,” he said.

As noted, the project must clear several hurdles, starting with the securing of what is expected to be several different sites, finalization of a design, and, especially, putting the funding in place.

The outdoor component of the complex promises to feature several fields and courts.

The outdoor component of the complex promises to feature several fields and courts.

Garcia said one of the next steps in the process is to assemble a funding strategy, one that will involve bringing more investors, like Ruiz, to the table, and also likely involve public support, from MassDevelopment and other state agencies.

But several significant steps have already been taken, especially the hiring of SFC, which has a deep portfolio of sports-complex projects, including the Rhythm & Rally Sports & Events complex in Macon, Ga., touted as the world’s largest pickleball facility; Allison Sports Town, an indoor/outdoor venue in Springfield, Mo. that spans 82 acres; Emerald Acres Sports Connection in Mattoon, Ill., which features an indoor field house, outdoor fields, and a walkable retail development space; the Fort Bend Epicenter in Rosenberg, Texas, a 230,000-square-foot, multi-purpose area that houses six basketball courts and 12 volleyball courts, with a capacity of 10,000 seats; and many others.

Ruiz called SFC the “best in the industry,” and noted that one of the next steps in the process of adding a Holyoke facility to that portfolio is visiting several projects of similar size and scope and understanding all that it took to make them reality.

“They handle the feasibility part of this, from design and development to operations,” he said of SFC, adding that the company can obviously help guide the initiative from start to finish.


Fields of Dreams

The sports complex, its importance to Holyoke and the region, and its potential as an economic driver are neatly summed up in a letter to a committee reviewing submissions to a request for proposals for a parcel on Whiting Farms Road owned by Holyoke Gas & Electric.

“This is not a dream, but a vision already being put in place by our partnership with the SFC team,” it reads. “We will build a sports facility that the city of Holyoke will be proud of … together with SFC, we will develop one of the top sports and event destinations in Massachusetts.”

Those behind those words believe this team has the drive, the confidence, and, eventually, the means to get the project over the finish line, or the goal line — whichever sports term one chooses — and make this vision reality.



A Long-awaited Transformation

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia says the mill-conversion project will impact the city for many years to come.


On Nov. 20, Holyoke city officials and legislative leaders joined WinnDevelopment executives and Massachusetts housing lenders to break ground on a $55.3 million adaptive-reuse project at a long-vacant, historic mill complex that will be transformed into 88 affordable apartment homes for seniors ages 55 and older.

The redevelopment at the Appleton Mill property in downtown Holyoke will create new, loft-style apartments in three interconnected, 111-year-old industrial buildings that were once home to Farr Alpaca Co. and have been vacant for decades. In addition, WinnDevelopment will construct a new community building and connect it to the residential space via a closed skybridge spanning nearby railroad tracks.

“We’re excited to get to work on preserving this important feature of Holyoke’s proud industrial legacy and transform it into much-need housing for seniors who want to stay in the community they love,” WinnDevelopment President and Managing Partner Larry Curtis said. “This project is the first part of a two-phase redevelopment effort that will revitalize this historic mill complex and provide an economic boost to Holyoke’s downtown.”

All 88 apartments will be reserved for low- and moderate-income seniors, with 12 units reserved for households below 30% of area median income (AMI), 63 for those below 60% of AMI, and 13 for households below 80% of AMI. Eight of the units will be available to eligible households through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s project-based voucher program, and five units will be set aside for Massachusetts Department of Mental Health clients through the Facilities Consolidation Fund.

“This project represents our commitment to history, preservation, and housing. It also represents our commitment to senior living, affordability, compassion, and care,” Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said. “The renovation of the former 111-year-old Alpaca Mill building to achieve these commitments is another Holyoke thing we do. I am excited to witness this unfold at this time in our city’s history and even more excited to see the impact it will have for many years to come.”

The project was made possible with significant federal, state, local, and private financing. Bank of America is serving as the project construction lender and as the investor in the project’s state and federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, authorized by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC), and state and federal Historic Tax Credits, awarded by the Massachusetts Historic Commission and the U.S. National Park Service.

“We’re pleased to help finance much-needed affordable housing for seniors in Holyoke,” said Mary Thompson, senior vice president of Community Development Banking at Bank of America. “We applaud Winn for their sustainable design that incorporates modern, energy-efficient heating, cooling, and appliances, while preserving the historic character of the Farr Alpaca Company complex.”

MassHousing provided tax-exempt bonds for the project financing, while the EOHLC provided soft financing, along with its partners, the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and the MassHousing Affordable Housing Trust.

The property’s current condition is a stark contrast to what it will look like in the future, according to this rendering.

The property’s current condition is a stark contrast to what it will look like in the future, according to this rendering.

“This decades-long-vacant and blighted mill property in the heart of Holyoke will be transformed into new, vibrant housing for older residents who will be able to live affordably and comfortably in downtown Holyoke,” MassHousing CEO Chrystal Kornegay said. “WinnCompanies has the experience and expertise to make this abandoned eyesore into a new affordable-housing community that will serve city residents for many years to come. The city of Holyoke has provided strong support, and MassHousing is pleased to be among the many public and private partners working closely together to complete this important project.”

Enterprise Bank, a locally owned and managed full-service commercial bank based in Lowell, played a key role in the redevelopment through the direct purchase of the bonds and the provision of bridge financing.

“We are pleased to have been able to partner with WinnDevelopment, a respected, award-winning property manager and creator of high-quality and exceptionally managed affordable housing, on this transformative project,” Enterprise Bank CEO Jack Clancy said. “We continue to remain committed to supporting affordable-housing initiatives throughout our footprint.”

The Holyoke Redevelopment Authority (HRA) provided a ground lease for the mill structure for a discounted value and provided additional funds for structural stabilization of the mill complex. Additional local partners include the city of Holyoke and local nonprofit OneHolyoke, which provided critical gap financing through local ARPA and CDBG funds. BlueHub Capital served as lender on the state credit loans.

“The HRA is proud of the partnership with WinnDevelopment and excited to see this project come to fruition,” said Aaron Vega, Holyoke’s director of Planning and Economic Development. “The whole team in our office worked on this project, and we believe in its transformative impact for our downtown and in addressing the housing needs of our community.”

Once the largest alpaca wool mill in the world, the 168,000-square-foot, brick mill complex features nine buildings on six acres and is one of Holyoke’s most prominent historic properties. After the Farr Alpaca Co. ceased production in the early 1940s, the complex declined and has been largely vacant since the 1970s, with deteriorating conditions hindering efforts to revitalize the area.

Located across the street from a state park dedicated to showcasing Holyoke’s industrial and cultural heritage, the site has been a priority for redevelopment since the city took title to the property a decade ago.

WinnDevelopment’s work is focused on an 86,000-square-foot section of the complex that includes three structures: Building 4, erected in 1880 and the oldest on the site; Building 5, a storage, washing, and sorting facility erected in 1905; and Building 6, also built in 1905 and the largest structure on the property.

Designed to meet the sustainability criteria of Enterprise Green Communities, the new apartment community will be completely fossil-fuel-free and will feature LED lighting; Energy Star appliances; low-flow, water-conserving plumbing fixtures; and premium roof insulation.

Resident amenity spaces will include on-site management offices, a fitness center, a resident lounge, an outdoor recreation area along the adjacent canal, laundry facilities, and 109 parking spaces.

Scheduled for completion in the spring of 2025, the project is being led by WinnDevelopment Senior Project Director Matt Robayna, with support from Senior Project Director Lauren Canepari and Assistant Project Director Hagop Toghramadjian.

Keith Construction of Canton is serving as general contractor for the construction effort, with the Architectural Team of Chelsea serving as architect. VHB is providing civil engineering and permitting services through its office in Springfield. Robinson+Cole of Boston served as transaction counsel.

Features Special Coverage

Fried and True

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee, two of the many partners involved with the White Hut location in Holyoke.

When asked about where they might take the White Hut brand — and when, both Edison Yee and Peter Picknelly took long pauses and then looked at each other as if to say, ‘you first.’

They did so to indicate a few things — first, that they’ve obviously been thinking long and hard about that question, and second … they don’t really know the answer yet.

What they do know is that they will bring the concept beyond Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, the location that was rescued in 2020 by Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines; Andy Yee, Edison’s brother; and others within the Bean Restaurant Group after founding owners the Barkett family announced it would close. And also beyond 825 Hampden St. in Holyoke, the location — a renovated former PeoplesBank branch — that opened last month.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept,” he said, using that term to describe brands with up to 10 locations, adding that locations are being scouted in Westfield and other communities, and if all goes well in Holyoke, there could easily be another location within a year.

Picknelly concurred. “We believe the White Hut is a brand that’s scalable; we’ve had overwhelming success in West Springfield — our customer count continues to grow there — and we think Holyoke is a great location,” he said. “This a solid brand, and we want to expand it out strategically.”

But both said that, at the moment, they and several co-owners in the Paper City venture, including Holyoke natives Jack Ferriter and Mark Cutting, are hard-focused on that location, the success of which might go a long way toward determining where and when this iconic (yes, that word fits here) brand and its red-and-white color scheme might next be seen.

Nathan Yee, director of Hospitality for the Bean Restaurant Group and part of the proverbial next generation of leadership at the company, believes it will do quite well.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept.”

Those involved spent considerable time scouting locations, he said, and eventually zeroed in on the Hampden Street location, which lies on a well-traveled road just a few hundred yards from an I-91 exit.

Beyond location, this site offers … well, everything that has made the White Hut brand iconic — its famous hamburgers, hot dogs, fried onions, shakes, and more — as well as new additions, including a salute to Holyoke: a breakfast sandwich called the Paper City Special, containing a scrambled egg with sausage, hash brown, American cheese, and fried onions on a Venetian water roll.

There are other new wrinkles as well, including a self-ordering kiosk for those who prefer that option, as well as a pickup option by which employees bring the customer’s order directly to their car.

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon of hot dogs at the grand opening of the Holyoke White Hut last month.

In short, the ownership group is taking a brand that has a storied past and a rich history and bringing it into the future — changing what should be changed, and not changing anything that shouldn’t be changed, like those fried onions.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the institution that is the White Hut, the long-planned move into Holyoke, and those still-evolving plans to bring the brand elsewhere within the 413 — and likely beyond.


Relishing the Possibilities

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-September, Edison Yee had a lot on his plate — and yes, that’s an industry term, sort of.

The Big E was going to start in a few days, and Yee and many others at the Bean Restaurant Group had considerable prep work to do get ready; the group has several locations at the fair, including the White Hut, the Wurst House, and a new addition to the portfolio, a ‘Harpoon Beer hut.’

“We sell a lot of food and lot of beer,” he said, adding that the company probably has 100 or more seasonal employees working at the fair, which has been an ever-increasing part of the business plan for the group since it first started taking part eight years ago.

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest, a huge, nearly month-long celebration at the Student Prince, is coming up fast (Oct. 8 is the official start date), and Yee was deep into the planning stages for that annual happening. And then, there’s ongoing planning and the start of work at the restaurant that will become a linchpin of the redevelopment of the Court Square Hotel on Elm Street in Springfield, another collaboration between Picknelly and the Bean Group.

But on this day, and the days before, the main focus was on the Holyoke White Hut location and making sure everything was in order for the grand opening coming up the next morning. This was an event that was maybe two years in the making, said Yee and Picknelly, noting that, not long after the West Springfield location had been saved and was successfully navigating its way through COVID, talk began to turn to where this iconic brand might go next.

And it wasn’t long at all before the focus turned to the Paper City.

But before we explore this move to Holyoke, we need some background, and some perspective on both the brand and the location in West Springfield, which, to many, has achieved landmark status, figuratively if not literally.

Our story begins in 1939, when Edward Barkett opened a small restaurant on Memorial Avenue and decided to call it the White Hut because that was the principal color.

Suceeding generations of the Barkett family owned and operated the restaurant and eventually took the brand beyond West Springfield — to Amherst, in a venture that met with only limited success, in part, Picknelly believes, because the location was not highly visible.

And while the brand is famous for the loyalty exhibited by its regulars, location and visibility are keys to the success of any restaurant, he went on.

Fast-forwarding a little, E.J. Barkett (Edward’s grandson) announced rather abruptly in 2020 that White Hut would close its doors. Picknelly and Andy Yee, both to be counted as Hut regulars, as well as serial entrepreneurs and part of the group that rescued the Student Prince restaurant in 2015 when its closure seemed imminent, stepped into the breach and saved the White Hut.

And they did so under extreme circumstances. Indeed, that rescue came at the height of COVID, when that restaurant, like all others, had to find ways to do business while also keeping people safe. It already had effective takeout service, said Picknelly, adding that this quality was one of many that enabled it to persevere during those trying times.

Another quality, obviously, was the food itself, he said, adding that another ingredient in the recipe for success was simply not to change much of anything that had made the Hut such a fan favorite.

Such diligence has been rewarded with rankings on a number of ‘best burger’ lists. In 2021, for example, White Hut’s cheeseburger with grilled onions was named the best burger in Massachusetts by Thrillist, and it has been ranked among the best burgers in the country. The Hut was profiled in USA Today in 2019, which said everything about the brand is “frozen in time,” and it’s been included by the Wall Street Journal in its “Essential Guide to America’s Best Burgers.”

That success begs the obvious question — where can this brand go? That query refers to everything from geography to the size of what would have to be called an emerging chain.


A Side of Entrepreneurship

The answer to that question begins in the Paper City and the opening of the Hampden Street location, which provides evidence that everything is no longer entirely frozen in time, as we’ll see.

“Holyoke has been on the radar for our group for a long time now,” Edison Yee said, adding that several potential sites were considered before the Hampden Street location, one strongly favored by his brother, Nick Yee, the group’s principal managing partner, became the focus of attention.

the latest White Hut location in Holyoke

From left, Bryan Graham (culinary director and partner), Nick Yee, Peter Picknelly, Edison Yee, and Nate Yee stand in front of the latest White Hut location in Holyoke.

“The traffic counts are great,” he said. “And, growing up in South Hadley, we knew that this was the main street to get onto I-91; you have all the traffic that comes from South Hadley, Granby, parts of Chicopee, and, of course, Holyoke, that are filtering through this road.”

Picknelly agreed, and noted that the traffic count is actually higher on Hampden Street than it is on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

Beyond steady traffic, the location provides more convenience to those who travel down I-91, Route 5, or other roads to get to the West Springfield location (and there are many in that category) while also introducing the brand to new audiences.

“We think Holyoke is a great location,” Picknelly said. “Our brand is still strong here, yet it’s far enough away that we won’t be competing against ourselves, and our customers from Holyoke, Northampton, and Granby won’t have to travel as far — that’s the essence of it.”

And while the location is expected to draw people from several area communities and, its owners presume, travelers on I-91, it is a neighborhood restaurant, one that will in some respects replace another iconic eatery, Mel’s Restaurant, which closed recently, just a few hundred feet away.

The location will offer the same menu as the one in West Springfield — and essentially the same food the Hut has offered since 1939 — but with some of those new amenities, such as the self-ordering kiosk, said Nathan Yee, which will bring another layer of convenience to customers.

“With each unit, we’ve identified some of the operational areas that we can improve on, and that’s what we’ve done with this location,” he said. “We’ve added a few new features to make it more customer-friendly.”

Renovation of the former bank branch took more than a year, he noted, and an investment, beyond the purchase of the property, of more than $1 million.

And this may the first of several initiatives to bring the White Hut brand to different cities, towns, and markets, said Picknelly and Edison Yee, noting, again, that Holyoke will be a barometer of sorts for how well the brand may ultimately travel.

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand,” Yee said. “This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Picknelly agreed, noting that expansion, either through owner-operated locations, such as those in Holyoke and West Springfield, or perhaps franchising, is likely if not inevitable.

“There are restaurant groups in Connecticut that have contacted us and want to franchise,” he said. “We want to expand this on our own first; we think it’s really scalable — this is our first venture to do that. Once this gets up and running, I think you’ll see the White Hut brand all over the Northeast.”

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand. This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Elaborating, he said could envision scenarios where there are both owner-operated locations and franchises, and there are plenty of successful models of such operations, including national brands such as KFC, Burger King, and others.


Food for Thought

Summing up the current state of this brand, Picknelly said it’s “one that the Barkett family built and the Yee family made better.”

Where can it go beyond West Springfield and Holyoke? Only time will tell, but it’s safe to assume that expansion will continue across Western Mass. and perhaps beyond. A brand that’s been called ‘simple,’ ‘tried and true,’ and, yes, ‘frozen in time’ will continue to be all those things.

But time certainly won’t stand still for the White Hut and its owners.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 153: March 13, 2023

George interviews Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee Member and Sponsor, PeoplesBank

Kelly McGiverin

The Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade and road race are regional events steeped in history and tradition. On this next installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Kelly McGiverin, Co-Marketing Director of Fundraising and Sponsorships for the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, and Matt Bannister, Senior Vice President Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for parade sponsor PeoplesBank, about parade week and what these events mean to the city and the region. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


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