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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Renovation Inspires Reuse and Recreation

Renovation Inspires Reuse and Recreation
By Mike Lauterborn
(for July/Aug issue Venu Magazine)

Fairfield, CT – The goal at the outset was to renovate a property for retail and office usage. The resulting development was more than anyone could have imagined, and has become one of Fairfield’s greatest assets.

In a recent sit-down at Carabiners, one of many businesses that calls the property home, Harold “Hal” Fischel, the site’s developer, and Deanna Spartachino, Marketing Manager at Fischel Properties, spoke about how Sportsplex@Fairfield, 85 Mill Plain Road, evolved.

“Dupont initially established the complex, which consists of 120,000 square feet of building space on 6.25 acres,” said Fischel, who, in 1970, founded the Fairfield-based development company that bears his name. “Dupont manufactured large rubber industrial parts. Fairprene Industrial Products Co. purchased the site and continued the operation until we bought the property in 2006. Many of the machines were still here and Fairprene was in the process of disassembling. We began to renovate everything – the roof, structural elements, all the utilities – and eliminated a big water tower and an 80-foot chimney. The vision was to convert it to market-receptive usage.”

The hitch with the plan was that the complex was in an industrial zone, restricted to allowed uses like indoor recreation. “We started searching for prospects,” said Fischel. “One by one, we found them, starting with the Gymnastics & Cheerleading Academy. Then we came across a chap, Steve Katon, in New Bedford, MA, who was interested in operating his Carabiners indoor climbing facility in Fairfield County and proceeded to build 30,000 square feet of climbing walls. Another fellow was interested in building an ice skating facility and created two real ice/frozen water training rinks that now fall under the banner Fairfield Ice Academy.”

Fischel said that, with those businesses as anchors, others followed, including The Field House, Fairfield Hot Yoga, Crossfit and Get in Shape for Women. “All these recreational-oriented businesses on one site have created a destination location,” Fischel said. “A plus it that it allows children, during vacation or summer camp, to experience different venues on one site. The venues work together to create an experience for the kids.”

The newest additions to the tenant mix include Fairfield Fencing Academy, Fairfield Pilates, two eating establishments, spinning and tae kwon do. “As of April 2010, we were 85% leased and on the way to full occupancy,” said Spartachino.

“Each business benefits from the exposure created by the surrounding businesses,” said Spartachino. “For instance, a climbing customer may notice and become interested in tumbling and ice skating, and vice versa. That’s a very unique situation. I also run into parents that, for instance, sign up their son for hockey and daughter for gymnastics, so they can do one-stop drop-offs. There’s really nothing like this between here and New York City.”

Credit for the complex’s success can be attributed to Fischel’s talent for identifying structures, often historic, that can be saved, renovated and reintroduced. “The theory is that it’s more economical to convert an existing structure than build from the ground up, which might include demolition,” said Fischel.

He compared the project with one his firm completed in the late 1980s – West Cove Marina in New Milford. That site includes boat slips, maintenance services and access to an adjacent lake with waterskiing, rowing and kayaking. “That first gave me the realization that people are appreciative of recreational facilities,” said Fischel.

Of course, location, as they say, is key. “Sportsplex is right off I-95 and a half block from the Post Road, downtown Fairfield and a large commuter parking lot,” he said.

Already, two of the businesses, Carabiners and the Gymnastics & Cheerleading Academy, have expanded, taking on more space. First Person Sports, offering Infra-red Laser Tag, has also recently opened, bringing another level of recreation to the complex. Numerous birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and adult get-togethers occur every week across the facilities, pulling families from all over Fairfield County.

The buzz gives people yet another reason to move to Fairfield. “We actually get calls here at the Sportsplex from families that are considering moving here and want to check what we offer,” said Spartachino.

Admittedly, there were challenges along the way to this pinnacle. “As an old building, it took tremendous creative vision to have it all come together,” said Fischel. “We wanted to build a field house for soccer and lacrosse – turf sports. The problem was there was a row of support columns down the center that had to be removed so a high-ceilinged clear span building could be placed in its footprint. Those columns were 100-year-old massive pine timbers. These valuable timbers that we had to move will be reused for architectural features.”

Spartachino said people love the natural brick and loftiness of the existing industrial buildings. “These spaces align well with the activities of the businesses that decided to call this complex home. The magnificence of the site, too, is such that it spans two entire Post Road blocks.”

Fischel has added to the visual attractiveness of the site by adding antique street lamps that complement the charm of the town and planting 250 arbor vitae trees to mask the Metro North train tracks from view.

From a marketing perspective, Spartachino said promotional support has included a Family Fun Day held last June, which offered free access to all the facilities. “It gave people an opportunity to sample everything from ice skating to trampolines. We also sponsor a movie night at Jennings Beach every summer. Last year our presence there included a gymnastics demo and portable climbing tower. We operate a wrapped bus as a shuttle to our facilities, as well, which has gone to several Touch-A-Truck events over time.”

Fischel said that after a certain point, what will carry the business is word of mouth. “I think the various businesses at Sportsplex are able to quantify their success through repeat business,” he said. “As developers, we’re happy to fill the spaces. It’s then the business’ turn to attract customers.”

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