May 31, 2017

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

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David Niles/For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker

This article was originally published in the April 16, 2017, edition of the Sun.

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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.

“I think it’s a very significant undertaking at many levels. It started out as really an idea, a vision, and I had never done it before. You don’t even know what you don’t know. And that would include what’s left. Because I’ve never done this before, I’m not certain what’s left.

“Every day brings a new challenge I hadn’t planned for, which is one of the things that makes it exciting. As far as what we’ve accomplished, first and foremost, we’ve built a staff because there’s no way you can do this without a staff. I’m very proud of the staff we’ve put together. We’ve got a wonderful group of people. It continues to grow, so I’d say that’s been our biggest accomplishment.”

What has surprised you?

“How much work it’s been. People keep asking me all of the time if I’m having fun. I’m, like, ‘What’s your definition of fun?’ And I keep telling them it’s a lot of work. I think it will feel a little bit different once we get into the season. But that’s what’s surprised me the most.

“The other thing that surprised me, quite honestly, is how wonderful the community has been. That’s sort of the juxtaposition to how much work it’s been. The community has been great. I didn’t anticipate it being this much work, but I didn’t anticipate the incredible level of support that [we] would get from the community. So those two things offset each other. If there was all this work and I didn’t feel that sort of support, it would be painful. But because the support we have, it’s become a labor of love.”

When you say “support from the community,” what do you mean?

“It’s people like you, the media, that have been very supportive of what we’re doing. They recognize that we’re trying to do good things in the community. It’s been the city leaders. They’ve been very supportive. When issues have come up, large and small, they’ve collaborated and worked together to get through that.

“And then it’s individuals, things like social media. We’re not getting trashed on social media. I read that stuff, like everybody. I’d like to think I have a thick skin but I’m not sure that I do. It’s hurtful when people say bad things. It’s impactful when they say supportive things.

“I’m not naive. I don’t expect that to continue indefinitely, but to this point I feel as though people recognize that we’ve come in here and we’re trying to make a positive impact on the community and they see that.”

David Niles / For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker

Let’s talk about that for a second, First, you’re the rare pro sports personality to acknowledge that he reads social media …

“That’s how we named the team, from social media. I had a different name [the Whitehawks] and I read a social media post and it caused me to change the direction of naming the team.”

You hadn’t done anything this public before, had you?

“No. I like to say I lived in a cocoon for a long time. I reached a stage in my life, an age in my life, where I felt it was time to step out of that a little bit and kind of get out my comfort zone. I felt in some respects that I’d gotten a little comfortable and that breeds stagnation. I didn’t want to stagnate. I wanted to continue to grow. You don’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, so I definitely challenged myself. I think I underestimated the challenge, but that’s OK.”

You made a couple of decisions early on that were key: ECHL rather than AHL, and branding the Railers as a hockey club. Tell us about how you made those decisions then, and what you think of those now.

“I feel good about both decisions.

“Originally I looked at an AHL team, two actually. I knew nothing about minor league sports or minor league hockey. What I learned is that the models are very different. In the AHL, the players, the coaches, all the hockey personnel are under contract to the NHL team, so you as an owner, essentially, are limited to the business aspect of it. If I really wanted to impact the community, owning a business didn’t seem to be the right model. The offshoot of that is we want to put a good hockey product out there — that’s really important. The ECHL has NHL affiliates, which will allow you to get NHL-caliber players, but it’s about a third of the team, so two-thirds of the team is under contract to you, one-third of the team in under contract to an NHL club. That mix had a nice appeal to me.

“As far as branding it as a hockey club, I can’t take credit for that. It wasn’t my idea, but I bought into it, and I think it really fit with our philosophy. This is a community asset. It’s born and raised in Worcester and Central Massachusetts. It was conceived here. I think making it a hockey club, trying to create year-round events, is a core philosophy and we’re working at it. It’s an expensive thing to do, but I think it brings together … it’s a club, that’s what we want it to be. I want the fans to be rabid. It’s minor league sports, but I want them to really be passionate about the Railers. I want them to travel when we play local teams. I want them to come out in droves and root like crazy and have a good time.”

As far as the Railers go, there’s corporate support and community support. Your goal was 1,500 season tickets and $1 million in corporate sponsorships. Where are you in terms of each, and where did you think you’d be?

“Any good entrepreneur has to buy into his own vision, otherwise what are you doing? From the moment I set those goals, I thought I would achieve or exceed, otherwise don’t do it.

“On season-ticket sales, we’re a little shy of 1,300 right now. There is no question that we’ll exceed 1,500 in my mind; we have six months to go. … I’m very grateful to those people who stepped up and came in early. I’m very, very confident that we’ll exceed the 1,500.

“On the corporate sponsorship side, we’ve exceeded $1 million. We are currently fifth or sixth [of 28 teams] in the ECHL, and my goal is to be No. 1. It’s going to be tough to do that. I have a very high level of confidence that we will exceed 1,500. We’ve exceeded our goal. To get to No. 1 is going to require a lot of work but I’m very goal-oriented, as is our team. It’s professional sports; your DNA, your pathology, everything has to be about winning.”

David Niles / For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker

In the past 12 months you’ve purchased 90 Commercial St., you’ve purchased the land that holds the former St. John’s High School and Compass Tavern, you’ve become the driving force behind the Worcester Ice Center, and have purchased 303-311 Main St. and affiliated properties. Were these investments part of the original plan, or has this been an evolution of thought?

“Definitely not part of the original plan, per se. The original plan was to come in here, start a professional hockey team and be a part of the community. Tactically, it wasn’t part of the plan.

“Good businesspeople have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. They have to be willing to take risk. There’s no reward without risk. As opportunities arose, that aspect of my pathology took over. But it wasn’t part of the original plan.

“However, in hindsight, [the investments] certainly integrated into the plan, which is to be part of this community. The hockey rink, in particular. That’s a community asset. That’s a lot of local schools and local kids, both part of hockey and kids that aren’t part of hockey, who could be figure skating, learning how to skate. We could have the next Olympic curling champion in Central Massachusetts, for all we know. That’s a community asset, it really is, in my mind. So all of these things have played into my vision, or our vision, of being part of the community. But it didn’t start out with that vision. I’m not that smart.”

Do you believe the support the Railers have received has been helped by your other business interests in the city?

“That’s a good question. I’d like to think that people in the community recognized that the Worcester Railers are trying to be a good community partner and whether we bought five pieces of real estate or no real estate that they would recognize that and support the team. So I don’t really know, and I haven’t really thought about that, to be honest. You get up in the morning, you put one foot in front of the other and you try to do the right thing. I haven’t tried to garner support by purchasing stuff.”

Let’s talk for a second about those other interests:

What’s the status of the tavern?

Patrick Sargent / For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker, owner of the ECHL’s Worcester Railers, is turning 90 Commercial St. into Railers Tavern.

“They’re working diligently. It’s going to be a really, really cool place. Very excited about it. It’s going to be a great place to watch a game, whether it’s the Railers, the Patriots, the Bruins or the Celtics or international stuff. You know, we’ve got big plans for audio-visual, for media, in there, tons and tons of TVs. We’re spending a significant amount of money to make sure we have the right programming. We’ve got some pretty exciting stuff. I’ve got a great partner in [Niche Hospitality Group CEO] Mike Covino. If I was responsible for the restaurant part of the tavern, I would be very concerned. But having partnered with a guy like Mike Covino, Niche Hospitality, it’s not just going to be the physical plant. I think the restaurant and the quality of the food will be great, so I’m really excited about it. Probably open in September.”

What is the status of the former St. John’s High School?

“We are going in for a demo delay waiver permit to the Historical Commission to be able to take it down. So our goal is to tear it down and ultimately develop the property.” [Editor’s note: The Worcester Historical Commission meeting scheduled for April 13, which had the demolition waiver as an agenda item, was postponed until Thursday because of a lack of quorum. The waiver will be on the agenda for the next meeting.]

So if you were to receive that waiver would you have that down by the time the Ice Center opens?

“That would be the goal. That would be the goal. … That’s why we’re going for it. And aesthetically, you’re going to have people coming into that area from outside of Worcester, from outside of the state and in some cases even outside the country, and we didn’t want them to be staring at a building that’s been vacant for 40 years, that’s dilapidated, that’s falling apart. We’re hopeful to get that waiver and get it down before we start bringing all the people in.”

That land also includes the current Compass Tavern. You have two restaurants in the Worcester Ice Center. Where does that building and the business occupying it fit into your plans?

“I think it’s going to be — and I’m not just saying this to patronize people — I think it’s going to be a win-win. [Compass Tavern owner] Dave Domenick does a great job. He’s a great operator. He’s my tenant. I want him to be successful, and I’m going to do everything I can to help him be successful. His restaurant doesn’t compete in any way with the restaurants that are in the rink. I made sure of that. I guess you could say any restaurant competes with any other restaurant, but how many times can you go to the same restaurant? I’m a firm believer in the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. He’s my neighbor. If we bring a half a million people into the Canal District I’m hopeful that some of them will end up in the Compass Tavern and his business will grow, and I’m hopeful that the restaurants we have in the Ice Center will do well. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game.”

Is the Ice Center on track for an August opening?

“It’s construction … It changes on a weekly basis. Probably more like September. But we’re not at risk for impacting anybody’s hockey season, that’s for sure.”

It’s been reported that you’re considering in the long term a hotel on the site of the former St. John’s High School. What would need to happen for that to come to pass?

“I’m going to do something that I don’t generally do, which is actually do some market research. We’re going to hire a market research person who specializes in the hotel industry and do a feasibility study. There’s a lot of hotels going up in Worcester and we want to make sure the demand is there, so that would have to come back in a positive way.”

David Niles / For Worcester Sun

Cliff Rucker

You leased space for your team at The Edge at Union Station, but leasing hasn’t been your M.O. Is it your long-term goal to buy and renovate, or build your own building for your players?

“That’s a really good question. I would say clearly when I came here my plan was to purchase a building and renovate it. I think I had at least two or three deals where I had a deal in place and for a variety of reasons — in one case, the gentleman was unable to deliver a clear title; in another case, we had some construction-related issues where there was insufficient space — so nothing seemed to work out. I started to panic about two or three months ago … I don’t want to get in a situation where I’ve got 22 or 23 guys that I have to provide housing for and they don’t have a place to live. So I made a decision. The best thing for the players would be to get a first-quality, first-class location even if it involved not the best economic deal for me. The Edge is a wonderful facility. It’s really clean, it’s really nice. We took our potential NHL affiliate through because they wanted to see where their players would live. They said it’s probably the nicest ECHL housing they’ve seen. So the positive side is that it’s a great facility; the negative side, I would absolutely prefer to own. But I’m not going to put the players in a situation that isn’t good for them. I’m not going to buy something for the sake of buying something. Unless I find the ideal situation, I’m not going to do it.”

Let’s back up a bit. Was St. John’s ever on the table [for player housing]?

“No. I might have thought about it for a minute. The building itself wouldn’t have worked because it was too far gone. There is a very significant amount of asbestos in that building. The environmental-related issues from a removal and a demolition standpoint, it [would] cost me three times the cost of knocking the building down just to remediate the environmental issues — three times. And knocking the building down is a big number, but it’s 3x that to remediate the environmental issues, so I would not have felt comfortable putting players in there.”

With all your other business interests in Worcester, does the commercial success of the Railers still define your success in Worcester?

“I don’t define success by commercial success. Success to me is all the important stuff, your family, your health, your faith, your attitude, your ability to be grateful for your blessings — that’s success. I’m not thinking about commercial success for any venture. I don’t think like that, to be completely honest with you.”

Really? Someone who’s been that successful doesn’t look at it that way?

“Again, what does it mean to be successful? To me it’s I’ve got five wonderful children, I’ve been married to a great woman, we’ve been together 30 years, I’ve got my health, I’ve got my marbles. So that to me is success.

“I’m not trying to play a semantics game, but the Railers need to be sustainable financially to continue to support the community. But if they were not successful financially, I don’t consider that a failure because the big, important stuff in life is what I think about. It’s important to me for people in general to try to have perspective and differentiate in my mind what’s really important. Now, I didn’t feel this way in my 30s. Now I try to have perspective, remind myself what’s really important.”

In interviews, you’ve spoken about the desire to bring people to downtown and you’ve spoken about the desire to see more retail, including “eclectic retail.” Why is that important?

“I think it’s important for people to have the ability to do stuff. … You want to walk around, shop and look in the window and go to an art studio, and walk around a vibrant downtown and have fun. That’s what draws young people to the city. That’s what I think. I’m not an expert, I’m not an urban planning expert, but I know when I visit … I have a boat and in the summer I’ll take it up to Portland and I’ll walk around downtown Portland. 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. So I think that just is a component of a vibrant downtown area.

“The question is what comes first, right? I think you have to have the density of population because the retailers aren’t going to take a risk that the people will come. They have to see the people first. So the most important thing is population density, bringing people downtown. And I think there’s been some impactful projects. There’s a couple of them going right now with several hundred apartments. I understand there’s some proposals to develop the courthouse. I think it’s in the works. It’s going to take some time.”

But that hasn’t generally been in your wheelhouse, downtown urban development. Is that something that’s been an evolution of your focus or does all this play into the sustainability of a Railers hockey club?

“So there’s nothing that I’ve done in Worcester in the past two years that is in my wheelhouse. All of it’s new to me. But it became apparent to me as I spent time in Worcester — I spent a lot of time in Worcester, a lot of time at night, and a lot of time by myself at night, and what I noticed very quickly when I walked around downtown at night, there’s nothing to do. There’s no stores that are open except for one or two restaurants. There’s no retail downtown, there’s nothing like that. So I didn’t come at this from an opportunistic real estate developer standpoint. I came at it as a guy, a person walking around saying, ‘Man, there’s nothing down here.’ That’s all it was.

The renaissance of downtown has made strides in the past few years. In addition to the work underway, there’s the Worcester Redevelopment Authority’s Downtown Urban Revitalization plan. Are you familiar with that?

“Superficially. I’m not an expert in it. I have read about it.”

That plan has about two dozen properties listed for redevelopment, including as two adjoining properties 12 Front St. and the Midtown Mall. Are you familiar with those?

“Depends what you mean by familiar. I believe I know where they are. I’m not intimately familiar with those specific buildings.”

But would there be any interest in becoming part of that revitalization? You’ve spoken about urban retail …

“I’m interested in supporting anything that I can that will help the community reach its potential. Nobody has approached me with anything. I haven’t proactively sought it out. But I can tell you that there are other projects that I’m involved with right now where people have sought me out and I’ve gotten behind them — several. I want to do what I can to put the resources that we have to bear. As I said, a rising tide lifts all boats. So anything that I can do to raise that tide, to the extent that I have the capacity to do that, I’m interested in getting behind it. That’s why I came here. That’s why I’m here.”

Sun Staff

Notre Dame des Canadiens church

It’s not part of the downtown revitalization plan, but there’s been another building recently in the news that people are trying to save, which is Notre Dame des Canadiens Church. Some say it is impeding downtown development, some say it would enhance development. Has that been put on your radar?

“It has been put on my radar. I was approached [recently] with a package, asking me if I would have the capacity to get behind as a potential developer, and I don’t. I don’t. … As I said before, I’m interested provided I have the capacity to get behind it, and I just don’t have the capacity. It was absolutely on my radar screen and I have to pick my spots and that’s just not one of them. That’s a big one.”

You’ve been quoted as saying, “I’m not done.” What does that mean, additional properties, additional businesses?

[Laughs] “I hope that is an all-encompassing statement. I’m trying to think of the context specifically of what I meant. I think I meant I’m not done being involved in projects in Worcester. And that’s unequivocally the case. … The genesis of this was a minor league hockey team, and that’s been going on for three years. But really in terms of getting more involved in the community in different projects, different real estate projects and business opportunities, I’ve really only been doing that about a year.

“Knock on wood, I’m young, I’m relatively young, I feel good, I’m healthy … I enjoy making an impact. Who doesn’t? As I said, It’s about capacity. What I’m not going to do, I’m not impetuous or childish. I’m not going to take projects on and overextend myself; hence the church. I saw that and within 20 minutes of reviewing the package, I’m, like, ‘I don’t have the capacity to do this.’

“So I want to continue provided that I have the capacity both financially and in terms of energy and the intellectual capacity. But I’m going to work hard to not overextend myself. I want this to have a happy ending. I don’t want this to just be ego-driven. I gotta be measured, and I’m trying hard to do that.”

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