Cliff Rucker: On the Railers, reinvigorating downtown and defining success

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.”

Worcester Sports Complex

Courtesy Worcester Railers

An artist’s rendering of the planned Canal District dual hockey rink complex.

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.”

David Niles / For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker

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.

Worcester Sun, April 16-22: Mariano on A Better Life, Sunday conversation with Cliff Rucker, Mount Carmel crystal ball + much more

Worcester Sun is the proud media partner of Jane Week in Worcester — find out what that even means, and peruse a calendar of events. Plus lots of other good stuff, too, in your April 16-22 Worcester Sun.

Inbox [April 2]: Worcester a top emerging startup hub, Becker and WSU announce commencement speakers, Abby’s House receives $4M for renovations, Bravehearts bolster roster

Interesting and worthwhile things happen every day in our community. Alas, we can’t cover them all. That’s where Inbox comes in, to offer readers an easily digestible compilation of interesting and noteworthy items you and your neighbors keep telling us about.

Worcester among nation’s top 10 emerging startup hubs

Worcester is among the top 10 U.S. cities emerging as hubs for start-up companies, according to a recent paper from the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and TechNet.

Other cities in the top 10 are Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Denver; Salt Lake City; Portland; Dallas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Philadelphia.

“All across the country, entrepreneurs are founding and building new companies that use technology in innovative ways,” the report reads. “The American startup ecosystem — the envy of the world — has spread outside of the coasts and high-profile tech hubs, such as San Francisco, Boston, and New York City, to other parts of the country. Startup activity is happening everywhere in cities and towns across America.

Billy Breault

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Mariano: The man nobody wants but every neighborhood needs |  “He is loud and brash. His hair is long and unruly and he wears a giant mustache that looks like a battering ram . . .

Inbox [March 8]: Becker taps new marketing chief, St. Peter-Marian adds girls hockey and moves into Worcester Ice Center, YWCA hosts forums, EcoTarium names new director, Worcester addresses graffiti

Interesting and worthwhile things happen every day in our community. Alas, we can’t cover them all. That’s where Inbox comes in, to offer readers an easily digestible compilation of interesting and noteworthy items you and your neighbors keep telling us about.

Becker names new executive director of marketing and strategic communications

Carolyn Assa has joined Becker College’s Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications as executive director.

Assa has spearheaded high-profile branding initiatives, built in-house agencies and launched award-winning magazines at education institutions in the region. In her new role at Becker, she will be charged with sharing the college’s story, building awareness of the college brand, and finding ways to promote Becker to new, as well as existing, audiences.

“Carolyn has achieved success across storytelling platforms in the field of education, worked with diverse clients as a public relations consultant, and has extensive media experience,” said Becker College President Robert E. Johnson. “We are excited to have Carolyn on board at Becker to direct our marketing and strategic communications efforts.”

Most recently, Assa worked as an account executive at Boston-based public relations agency, Ellis Strategies. Her past experience includes leading the communications and marketing department at Perkins School for the Blind, the oldest school for the blind in the United States, and at Bunker Hill Community College. She holds a master of arts degree in communications from Emerson College and a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Worcester Sports Complex

Courtesy Worcester Railers

An artist’s rendering of the planned Canal District dual hockey rink complex.

St. Peter-Marian partners with Railers to offer girls’ hockey; Guardians to play at Worcester Ice Center

The St. Peter-Marian athletic department and President Christopher Cummings announced that the Guardians have partnered with the Worcester Railers Hockey Club and Railers President Michael G. Myers to create a state-of-the-art home for the St. Peter-Marian boys’ hockey team and the Guardians first-ever MIAA girls’ hockey program.

Worcester Sun, March 8: Mariano takes city officials to task on PCBs + OPEB needs attention ASAP

In the unlikely event you need more reasons to check out this edition, we have Hitch on Gary Rosen, Top 5 Stories, a big move for Becker’s Robert Johnson … and a bunch of other good stuff. It’s your Wednesday, March 8, Worcester Sun.

Edge at Union Station

Railers players’ first stop? Their new apartments at the Edge

Worcester Railers HC searched high and low, east and west, and all across the city to find a home for its incoming crop of mostly young up-and-coming hockey players.

Conveniently enough, what team officials were looking for was right around the corner the whole time.

The Railers have agreed to lease five four-bedroom apartments at Edge at Union Station, according to team and property officials, to accommodate 20 players in anticipation of the start of the club’s inaugural minor league hockey season in October.

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Michael Myers, Railers president. “It’s a perfect setup for us since they’re right there next to the [Worcester Ice Center].”

Worcester Sports Complex

Courtesy Worcester Railers

An artist’s rendering of the planned Canal District dual hockey rink complex.

The Worcester Ice Center, which broke ground this past October, is a 100,000 square-foot facility — anchored by two full-size ice rinks and a full-service restaurant to be run by Niche Hospitality — and has been slated to open in August 2017. At the corner of Winter and Harding streets, it’s a short walk from the Edge.

The team, Myers told the Sun, leased the apartments at the Edge for one year to “test the waters and see how it is for [the Railers players].”

More Railers coverage in the Sun:

Worcester Sun, Feb. 15: Railers living on the Edge, Hitch tunes up Elizabeth Warren + much more

Big news for Main South CDC leads off Inbox. Maura Healey adds bedside manner to gun safety battle. Top-5 stories. And more in your Wednesday, Feb. 15, Worcester Sun.

Tym Dore: Railers brought me to Worcester, city keeps me wanting more

“I had grown up in the Pioneer Valley and was familiar with the hardships that cities like Lowell, Springfield and Worcester faced. After being away from Massachusetts the past few years, my wife and I came to Worcester to meet with the Railers, and we were hooked.” Find out more about what drew a young, small-town family to become certified fans of the Woo.

Inbox [Nov. 9]: Worcester State checks in as new Canal District rink tenant, concert series begins today, Cary receives lifetime honor, Dunkin’s awards $30K to vets and first responders, Shrewsbury Street group meets tomorrow

Have a release or a photo you or your group would like to share? Let us know by emailing it to info@worcester.ma. Be sure to include a link to the full release on your site or Facebook page so we can include it and send Sun members your way.

Worcester State signs on with Canal District rink

Worcester State University has signed a partnership agreement to serve as an anchor tenant at Worcester Sports Center, beginning next fall.

Worcester Sports Center, under construction at the former PresMet site on Harding Street, is slated to open in the summer of 2017 and will host the Worcester State men’s hockey team, which will include all home games, practices and a permanent locker room.

Worcester Sports Complex

Courtesy Worcester Railers

An artist’s rendering of the planned Canal District dual hockey rink complex.

“I am excited to announce that Worcester State University will be joining us as an anchor tenant in 2017 with their men’s ice hockey team,” Worcester Sports Center’s managing partner Cliff Rucker said. “Partnering with Worcester State epitomizes our commitment that this is truly a Worcester community resource – built for the residents and student athletes of Worcester.”

Worcester State joins the Becker College men’s and women’s teams [first in the Sun!] and Worcester Academy; as well as youth organizations Worcester Junior Sharks and Junior Crusaders in signing on as initial tenants along with Rucker’s Worcester Railers ECHL minor league hockey team, which is expected to begin league play in October 2017.