Summer has finally come to an end and the light at the end of the tunnel is welcoming a new season as the Worcester Railers will finally make their debut at the DCU Center on October 14.

Despite not having played a game yet, the Railers have already made a huge impact in the city with community appearances, significant charitable donations, and sponsorships of major events in Worcester.

Railers owner Cliff Rucker has said on several occasions that if he simply wanted to open a business he could have done so anywhere, but he looked for a place where he could join with other business leaders and with local government to help improve the larger community.

After looking at other locations he chose Worcester as the home for his then proposed ECHL franchise.

While the Railers sponsoring community events like POW! WOW! Worcester and the Canal District Music Series gain them lots of headlines, it’s their significant charitable donations to causes helping the residents in need in the city that shows Rucker’s commitment to Worcester.

Last winter the Railers donated $35,000 to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Santa Fund — one of the largest donations to the fund during the 2016 holiday season. The Foundation also donated $5,000 each to five different charities: Rainbow Child Development Center of Worcester, The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester, Veterans Inc., The Friendly House, and StandUp For Kids.

In mid-August the Railers hosted a “Battle of the Badges” blood donation drive in cooperation with the Red Cross and Worcester Police and Fire which resulted in 216 units of blood being collected. It was the largest total ever collected in the city of Worcester.

Part of the event was each donor voted for either the Worcester Police or Fire Departments, with the “winners” having $1,500 donated to the Worcester Boys & Girls Club in their name by the Worcester Railers HC Foundation. The police were the victors 151-104. The Railers are hoping this becomes an annual event.

Paul Harris, the Railers Community Relations Coordinator, and mascot Trax, are out at events nearly every day either to help raise money for organizations or to show the team’s support at a variety of events. A couple of weeks ago, Harris shared the list of Trax’s appearances for the following Saturday that included six stops in just four hours.

“I love it,” Harris said with a beaming smile when the comment was made about how busy he was going to be. “I would do ten events a day if possible. I absolutely love my job. I like to think that the more I’m away from the office, the better. It means I’m out promoting the team, the mascot, our whole Railers brand.”

With every comment, Harris was always quick to return to the organization’s community efforts. Harris said, “We just started Skate to Success, our main community program where we bring in elementary school kids to the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center to learn to skate for free. This provides access to kids who probably never laced up a pair of skates before or been in an ice rink. Talk about a cool field trip!”

“I love seeing the kids’ faces light up when Trax surprises them,” Harris added. “The coolest thing is when I don’t even have to introduce Trax, and the kids remember him from previous events. ‘Trax you came to my school!’. It’s crazy to think about how many events we’ve done in such a short time”

Collectively, Harris said it was hard to say which community effort stands out the most because they’re all so different, but did remark on one recent event that hit close home for him.

Harris said, “It was Auburn’s Relay for Life. It was powerful. I got to talk and hear stories from cancer survivors. Cancer has impacted my family just like it has impacted many others. It was so cool to see survivors, caretakers, and extended family all together for a day of raising awareness and celebration.”

Harris continued. “I want to be involved with the Worcester community as much as possible. Every time someone picks up a prize pack I make sure to have a conversation with them, wish them luck, and give them a business card in case they ever need help in the future.” He then quickly added, “And, of course, give them ticket information. I want to sell out opening night just as much as our ticket reps”.

The prize packs Harris referred to are what the Railers donate to non-profits and other organizations that hold silent auctions and raffles. They typically include t-shirts, lunch bag, tickets, stickers, tattoos, pocket schedules, train whistle, pencils, and other small giveaways. Some of the larger events also get things like sweatshirts.

Those items have raised money for causes like The Friendly House, Autism Speaks, the 15-40 Connection, Marie’ Mission, and many other local charities.

Harris was also quick to thank the Railers for the opportunity to help in the community.

“I’m very fortunate to be working for Cliff Rucker and the Worcester Railers. They have given me the tools to make a huge difference in the community, something I’ve always wanted to do since I was young. (Railers President Mike) Myers and Eric (Lindquist) have helped me out so much and I can’t thank them enough,” Harris said.

He added, “I can’t wait for the season to start and see what types of events I can do with our players. The future’s looking bright here in Worcester. I keep telling everyone how exciting this all is. We have hockey coming back to Worcester, twin rinks at our state-of-the-art practice facility, a Railers Tavern, and so much more. I can’t wait.”

Railers HC Booster Club Vice-President Ernie Racine knows how important the Railers involvement in the community really is.

As the person in charge of the booster club’s “Booster Seats” program, Racine saw the direct impact community outreach had with the Sharks. He says while the Sharks were outstanding in the community,  the Railers have already shown they plan to be even better.

“The Railers organization has already deeply impacted Worcester by building community spirit and making significant financial commitments to the city. By promoting local charities, making them and their works known to others, and encouraging outside volunteerism and contribution the Railers serve as a role model for other businesses to follow.”

“Worcester is much better from them being here.” he added. “I’m proud to be associated with them and their charitable work.”

While the hockey season runs from October to late spring the need for charitable endeavors is non-stop. Even though we don’t know how well the team will do on the ice we do know that in the community they’re already acting like champions.

 

Ask any teenager what some of their current favorite games are and odds are you’ll get a long list of whatever the latest hot video game is, with a spattering of some of the older classics still holding their attention.

But ask people just a bit older and the answers will probably be a little different.

Chances are, they’re picking lots of board games.

Settlers of Catan Board Game

The games they’ll mention aren’t the classics like Monopoly, Operation, or any of the other game titles that have littered department store shelves over the years. The games they’ll say will have names like Settlers of Catan, Ticket To Ride, or Agricola.

That’s not news to Sorana Gatej, Marketing and Event Coordinator for That’s Entertainment on Park Avenue in Worcester. She says that college students make up a large portion of the store’s board game customers.

Gatej said, “Being a college town and with the (WPI) campus just over the hill we see lots of students coming in and purchasing games.” She added that board games are a great way for people to gather and not have it cost a lot of money.

Clarion Game Studios owner Michael Ciaravella agrees that economics is one of the driving forces in the current board gaming craze.

Ciaravella said, “If you look at the cost of going to a movie as a couple, in some places you’re shelling out $30. Now add the cost of snacks or dinner, and you’re getting into some real money. If you need a babysitter, now you’re costing yourself big bucks.”

“With board games,” Ciaravella continued, “you usually have an initial cost of between $35 to $50. But unlike the movie you saw you’ll always have the game to keep playing. If you have two or three other couples doing the same thing everyone can get together and play a different game each week. Even adding in the cost of a potluck dinner or takeout you’ve cut the cost of your evening’s entertainment significantly.”

That’s Entertainment on Park Ave in Worcester

When asked if the glut of games currently available makes it harder to get new titles noticed, Ciaravella replied matter-of-factly, “A good game finds the audience. With there being so much fan interaction on blogs and social media it only takes a handful of the right people to say they like your game for it to start selling. Despite all the technology around word of mouth endorsements are still the best sales tool”.

At a gaming event called Summer Sizzler in Marlborough last Sunday longtime board gamer Jim Torkelson, who has seen many ebbs and flows in the hobby, pointed the finger at Facebook as being one of the catalysts for the current boom in board gaming.

“With Facebook, there are lots of groups dedicated to board gaming, and that allows for people in the same area who might not have known each other to get together to play,” Torkelson said.

Proof of that came just minutes later as this reporter was sitting at the sign-in desk for the event collecting notes when two attendees saw what was written and quickly admitted that a Facebook board gaming group was how they had originally met. They also said their entire gaming group of nine people’s first connection was that board gaming group.

The Summer Sizzler event was organized by a group called Total Confusion, who run the largest gaming convention in New England every year during the weekend after President’s Day. During last February’s convention, the 31st TotalCon event, they had over 3,000 through the doors for the four day convention, with a large number of those playing in the board game area.

TotalCon Board Game Director Rob Kircher estimated the number of board games played at the February convention to be in the 300-350 area. He said an exact number isn’t possible to determine because while many of the games are scheduled events there’s also a significant number played in what’s called “Open Gaming”, where several people grab one of the hundreds of board games available, sit at a table, and play.

Steven Parenteau, the Event Director for all the Total Confusion events, added that board gaming had been their biggest area of growth over the last few years.

Torkelson also said that hobby stores seeing the potential financial gain in having an open gaming area and holding game demonstrations are a huge bo

Agricola Board Game

ost to the hobby. Gatej agreed, mentioning That’s Entertainment holds frequent demos of games to help people new to the hobby find games they would enjoy.

After getting a lot of inquires about specific game titles based on what was being played at Gen Con, the largest tabletop-game convention in North America, or appearing on various celebrity YouTube channels, the store began keeping a wider variety of titles in stock. Inevitably customers began asking questions about the games available, so That’s Entertainment began scheduling demos of some games. Gatej says the results have been all positive.

Gatej said, “Not only have the demos) introduced people to games they might not have tried before, it’s also created great relationships not just between us and the customers but between the customers themselves.”

Gatej added that in lots of cases people become so attached to the hobby that they want to help the store run its game demos, which will be the case Sunday during the stART on the Street festival that takes place right in front of their store.

That’s Entertainment has moved their usual Saturday game demonstration to Sunday to coincide with stART on the Street, with their in store event running from 11 AM-5 PM. It is open to the public and free of charge.

“Playing board games is a lot more than just playing the game. It’s the interaction with the other players that’s also a big draw. Board gaming is really a social event,” said Tim Forrest, who started playing board games after buying Settlers of Catan from Barnes & Noble years ago.

“My friends and I were hooked, and soon we’d bought all the expansion sets for Settlers,” Forrest added.

Forrest is far from alone, as over the last twenty years board games have gone from a niche hobby to a huge mainstream business. Pop culture website ICv2.com estimated that in 2015 the board and card products created for the hobby market had a value of $1.2B in just North America.

And that’s not in Monopoly money.

One of the big stories in Worcester this summer has been the efforts of local citizens, business leaders, and the City Council to entice the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston Red Sox’ AAA affiliate, to build a new stadium and move the franchise to the city.

A topic that hasn’t been talked about much recently in this discussion is who would pay the clean-up costs for the Wyman-Gordon property. Wyman-Gordon admits there is environmental contamination at the site, but no one seems to know for sure how bad it is.

Possible areas for clean up on Wyman-Gordon property

In a Worcester Magazine article this summer, Wyman-Gordon property manager Ronnie Brooks is quoted as saying, “I’m not sure it requires lots of cleanup.”

This statement seems odd based on the large amount of Massachusetts EPA documents available online concerning the property. The documents show that Wyman-Gordon is aware of what the contamination is, and there is a Activity & Use Limitation on file for the Madison St. property. An unannounced inspection of that property on January 27th showed that Wyman-Gordon was in compliance with the order.

The costs of environmental clean-up are also hard to determine without significant effort. At the site of the new WRTA Maintenance and Operations Facility on Quinsigamond Ave preliminary estimates put the clean-up costs in the $1-$2M range, but after additional studies the estimates continued to rise until the final estimate of $15M was reached. The actual costs are currently near $20M, with still some funds needed to be appropriated for the project.

If the clean-up costs were to be a small amount wouldn’t it have made business sense for Wyman-Gordon to sell or clean the site up prior to now? It isn’t like environmental clean-up costs would ever go down. Plus with it being such a large parcel of land in a fairly in-demand area of the city it seems strange that Wyman-Gordon has never put the excess property on the market in the decade or so it’s been unused.

There’s been several proposed uses for the property, many of which were discussed in a Sept. 2015 meeting held by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority at the Crompton Collective that was attended by local business leaders, politicians, and residents.

Proposals for the property included a multi-sports facility with an Olympic sized pool for the property, a new school, or townhouses. The site is also frequently mentioned as a possible location for a new police station. To date, no proposal has gotten past the “it looks great on paper” stage.

It’s certainly possible that Wyman-Gordon doesn’t care that much about the property one way or the other and is content with just paying the real estate taxes and letting it sit empty, but that seems a little far-fetched. That property is likely just a drain on Wyman-Gordon’s funds, so it seems like an automatic that they’d move to sell it, especially if it requires very little clean-up.

But there it sits empty.

While there’s no evidence to support any real conclusions one has to wonder if Wyman-Gordon is biding their time waiting for an offer on the land so they can just wash their hands of it and stick the clean-up costs on the buyer. It just doesn’t make any sense that they’ve done nothing to the property over all these years if it would have been easy to clean up and sell.

Another issue any Worcester bid would have to deal with is increased traffic around the proposed stadium location. If you’re from Worcester you know all about Kelley Square and how bad the traffic is in that area on a normal day. Now figure in traffic to and from the ballpark and the word “nightmare” quickly jumps to mind. A look at Google Maps of the area shows that it’s going to be challenging to find a route away from the ballpark that won’t be clogged with traffic.

In the best of times Kelley Square is an issue, and adding 3,000 or more cars going through there in a short span of time is going to cause gridlock in that part of the city. Short of a police detail stopping all other traffic entering Kelley Square and requiring all cars exiting the ballpark up Vernon Street onto I-290, there is no real way it can work with cars heading in either direction.

It is possible the Massachusetts Legislature would approve funds for improvements to the area around the the Wyman-Gordon property that would help alleviate the traffic situation. They did so when Robert Kraft and the Patriots built Gillette Stadium, where state funds were used to improve Route 1 and rail service in Foxborough. There would need to be a plan in place for the legislature to find funding that makes sense for Worcester.

Having the PawSox move to Worcester would be a great feather in the city’s cap, but looking at the obstacles it’s hard to imagine how any bid by the city would be better than the current proposal for Pawtucket that Rhode Island lawmakers will be deciding this fall.

It seems more likely that Worcester is the PawSox ownership group’s public “Plan B” to essentially back the Rhode Island Legislature into a corner to accept the deal and keep the team in Pawtucket.

With all of the strikes against it seems the bad news for Worcester is no matter how many motions the city council passes nor how many postcards are sent out the deck is stacked against the city being able to convince PawSox ownership to move their team here.

The good news?  They Wyman-Gordon land really is a nice spot for a new police station.