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What's WhirlyBall? Colorado Springs is about to find out

April 14, 2017 Updated: April 19, 2017 at 11:16 am
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WhirlyBall is giving Colorado Springs a whirl.

A family-run, Chicago-based company is developing a 30,000-square-foot entertainment center on the Springs' east side that will be home to WhirlyBall - a game that mixes elements of basketball, hockey and lacrosse and whose players ride electric bumper cars.

The venue, which will cater to walk-ups, corporate outings, family reunions and other gatherings also will have bowling, higher-end bar food and craft beer.

The Elias family of Chicago will open the venue in early June in the Rustic Hills Shopping Center, southeast of Academy and Palmer Park boulevards. A $2.5 million remodeling is underway, said Adam Elias, strategic planning vice president of a company founded in 1993 by his father, Sam, who's CEO and owner.

It will be the Eliases' fourth WhirlyBall center; they also own venues in Chicago and two of its suburbs, all of which have operated for several years. The Springs location will employ 40 to 45 full- and part-time people.

WhirlyBall was invented in the early 1960s by a Salt Lake City automotive shop owner, who was inspired by watching his son use a hockey stick to whack a tin can while riding a golf cart, Adam Elias said. The game evolved to gas-powered bumper cars and now is played using indoor, electric bumper cars that teams ride as they throw around a ball and attempt to score points.

Flo-Tron Enterprises Inc. of Salt Lake City manufactures WhirlyBall equipment, and there are a handful of WhirlyBall operations around the country that aren't connected to the Elias family, Adam Elias said. In 2012, Flo-Tron licensed the Elias family as an equipment distributor and a WhirlyBall franchiser, he said.

As the Eliases looked at cities for expansion, the Springs' active lifestyle and the presence of the U.S. Olympic Committee made it a good fit, said Elias, who's also familiar with the area after graduating from the University of Colorado.

At the same time, Rustic Hills Shopping Center owner Mila Properties of Houston approached the Eliases, Adam Elias said. Tough times for bricks-and-mortar stores, which increasingly compete with Amazon and other online retailers, have prompted many shopping center and mall owners to look for new types of tenants.

The Rustic Hills Shopping Center - which dates to the late 1960s and once was a small enclosed mall - has lost Ross Dress for Less, Hobby Lobby and T.J. Maxx over the years; a Gold's Gym is one of the property's few tenants. The center is in the heart of what city officials have labeled a troubled stretch of Academy because of retail vacancies, an aging infrastructure and other issues.

"A lot of shopping centers malls, lifestyle centers are approaching entertainment concepts like us to fill these boxes to drive people back to these areas," Elias said.

Rustic Hills also is centrally located and has great visibility along Academy, Elias said. In researching the Springs, the Eliases also felt it lacked entertainment concepts such as WhirlyBall,.

The center's main draw will be WhirlyBall. Two, five-person teams ride bumper cars - called WhirlyBugs - and maneuver around an electric, magnetized floor. Players use handheld plastic "scoops" to catch and pass a softball-sized Whiffle ball; they score points by flinging it at a target on a basketball-like backboard. Part of the fun: players might pin each other into corners and bump each other with their cars, Elias said. The 10-minute games appeal to families, friends and businesses that can use the activity for team-building, Elias said. The center will have two 3,000-square-foot WhirlyBall courts; kids can play with adults, but must be taller than 54 inches, he said.

The center also will have 12 bowling lanes, Elias said. A separate event room will accommodate groups of 160 to 200 people and can host meetings, parties and receptions. A business might use the event room for a training exercise in the morning, have lunch and then play a few games of WhirlyBall, Elias said.

Food and drink will be another big part of the center, Elias said. Instead of popcorn and nachos, the center will offer what he called "elevated bar fare." An on-site kitchen will produce chef-driven items; a Springs menu is being finalized, but other locations offer pizza, burgers, sandwiches and salads. The kitchen also can produce special menus for groups using the event room.

Craft beer will include selections from the Springs-based Bristol Brewing Co. and likely other Colorado brewers, Elias said. The center also will offer wine and cocktails, and several widescreen TVs, he said.

Entertainment centers have come and gone in Colorado Springs; Mr. Biggs, the JoyRides Family Fun Center and, more recently, the iT'Z Family Food & Fun center are no longer in business. But the Overdrive Raceway go-kart complex opened on the north side in 2016 and Great Wolf Lodge launched its indoor water park in December.

Elias said his family believes the WhirlyBall center - with a variety of activities and top-of-the line food - will appeal to many people, however.

"We're different, we're unique," Elias said. "Being a unique concept, where it's something that everyone can do, it has a very wide audience."

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