When word filtered out in October 2015 that Cliff Rucker wanted to bring pro hockey back to Worcester, the sum and substance of what was known about him by the city at-large was contained in three words: “Eastern Mass. businessman.”
If the hockey team were still Rucker’s only connection to the Heart of the Commonwealth, that description might well still suffice. However, in the past 18 months Rucker’s portfolio and profile in Worcester have expanded dramatically.
In April 2016, less than six months after confirming his interest in an ECHL franchise and four months after signing a lease with the DCU Center, Rucker purchased 90 Commercial St. The former Bar FX will be home to a Worcester Railers HC tavern, which is set to open in, well, read on …
I can walk around downtown Portland for five hours and not get bored. I’m not sure you could do that on Main Street right now in Worcester. I think you’re going to get bored pretty quick; there’s not enough stuff to do.
That same week, Rucker confirmed he would partner with Marathon Sports Group and the Worcester Business Development Corporation to construct a multipurpose ice rink facility on the site of the former PresMet facility at Harding and Winter streets in the Canal District.
Rucker’s involvement jump-started the $15 million-$18 million project.
“He really stepped in on the hockey rink deal to make that happen when it had stalled,” Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said. “He saw an opportunity that made sense for the hockey team to have the rinks there. But he also is a father whose kids are actively involved with sports. He also, I think, saw an opportunity to expand hockey in the region and specifically is talking about programs that expand hockey for kids who might not ordinarily have access.”
WBDC President and CEO Craig L. Blais said: “We negotiated a long-term ground lease on a very tricky piece of property that involved environmental contamination and a tricky set of tenants, complex tenants, that had to be signed up, and he got through all that. And the deal got done.”
The groundbreaking took place in May, and construction began in October. The Worcester Ice Center will include two rinks, two restaurants (Nonna’s Kitchen and Nonna’s Cafe) operated by Niche Hospitality, a physical therapy center operated by Reliant Medical Group, retail shops, and a strength training facility.
Rucker expanded his footprint in the Canal District in September 2016 by purchasing 3.5 acres around the rink complex for $2.1 million. The land included the former St. John’s High School and The Compass Tavern.
If granted, Rucker’s application for a demolition waiver delay from the Worcester Historical Commission would pave the way for the demolition of the former high school.
Finally, in December, Rucker purchased for $2.8 million the Bowditch & Dewey building at 311 Main St., plus the parking lot bordered by MLK Boulevard and Commercial and Exchange streets.
In addition to his roles as the owner of a hockey team, Rucker’s multimillion-dollar investments in Worcester have made him a public figure and one of the faces of Worcester’s resurgence. Inasmuch as Rucker has adopted Worcester, the city has adopted him as one of its own.
“Cliff, first and foremost, is a good person, a good family man, but he’s also a very accomplished businessman,” Murray said. “He knows how to quickly analyze a situation. He’s built a number of businesses, so he gets it.
“I think he’s seen some of the economic development momentum in the city. He also has a real estate company, so he’s not unfamiliar with real estate. He’s a very smart guy, and a good guy. … As important as his investments are, and they are enormously important — they are bringing new dollars and new energy into the city, and jobs come about because of that — but he’s also interested in becoming a member of the community. That to me is just as important. He’s not just an investor and business owner.”
Murray continued: “There’s always a small but loud chorus of people that root for failure every day, but the validation is people like Cliff Rucker, people from the outside coming in and seeing what teamwork and collaboration is able to get done. … There’s more work to do, but that work is quickened when people like Cliff come in and become such a meaningful part of the community.”
Blais said, “There are those who are dreamers and there are those who get things done. Cliff is a doer. When he sets his sights on something he wants to get done, he gets it done. …
“I know the Railers will be first-class operation and Worcester is very fortunate to have Cliff Rucker doing business here as both a professional team owner and developer here in the city. We’re very pleased to have Cliff here, and he’s a pleasure to work with.”
Worcester Sun sat down with Rucker for a wide-ranging conversation in which he discussed, among other things, becoming a public figure for the first time in his professional life, becoming part of a Worcester community, his expanding role in the revitalization of Worcester, his goals for the Railers, the future of The Compass Tavern and the site of the former St. John’s High, and what he considers the true metrics for success.
[Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.]
In October 2015, about a year and half ago, you announced your intention to bring hockey back to Worcester. You’re now about six months from having the puck dropped. Tell us about the part of the journey you’ve completed and the part that remains.