Features Special Coverage

Taking the Ball … and Running with It

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.