STAMFORD -- In January 2009, David Tewksbury was playing his regular pickup ice hockey game when he received a tip from a fellow skater, former New York Islander John Tonelli.
It had nothing to do with his game, but rather, his business.
"He told me there was a property I needed to look at in Stamford, Connecticut," he recently recalled, in an accent that betrayed his eastern Massachusetts roots.
A tall, shaved-head hockey enthusiast, Tewksbury is one of three partners at Chelsea Piers. The sprawling sports and recreation complex on Manhattan's waterfront opened in 1995, now drawing four million visits a year.
Over the years, the company had explored the idea of expanding, but had never quite found the perfect site, Tewksbury said.
All that changed when Tonelli showed him the 33-acre manufacturing site on Stamford's East Side that had once been home to the hair-care giant Clairol.
At the time, the nearly 700,000-square-foot facility included hulking warehouse spaces with generous stretches of uninterrupted floor space and airport-hanger-like ceilings held up by steel beams.
But aside from the physical space, there was yet another, more compelling factor.
"You probably couldn't have put a better location on the map," Tewksbury said.
Off Exit 9 on Interstate 95, the property at 1 Blachley Road sits within a 20-mile radius of both Fairfield and Westchester counties.
As Tewksbury saw it, the area is "densely populated, fairly affluent and sports-crazed."
Starting Monday, he will put that assessment to the test as he oversees the launch of Chelsea Piers Connecticut. The roughly 400,000-square-foot facility, which involved 15 months of construction costing just under $40 million, is said to be unrivaled in North America.
Chelsea Piers originally set out to buy the entire property. Following a failed bid, the company signed a long-term lease in July 2011 with the eventual ownership group called Stamford Exit 9 LLC. NBC Sports, which reached its own lease agreement 15 months later, is to be a neighbor early next year.
Even prior to the NBC deal, Chelsea Piers had already created a buzz with its plans.
The facility's ground floor houses two large ice rinks, an Olympic-sized pool with an adjustable hydraulic floor on one end, a children's "splash zone" with water slides and a 15,000-square-foot gymnastics center.
The complex's squash facility has 11 gleaming new singles courts and a doubles court that is to include a unusual glass design that permits viewers to watch the action while the athletes play undistracted.
Spread across the second level are seven indoor tennis courts and a field house with a 100-yard turf field that can accommodate soccer, lacrosse, football, field hockey, softball and baseball. There are hardwood courts for basketball and volleyball, a running track and a standard gym room with bikes, treadmills and elliptical trainers.
Other amenities include a restaurant and cafe, an athletic shop, party spaces available for rent, and even a day care center.
Also a former athletics director at Stamford's Jewish Community Center, Lamour has seen his fair share of sports facilities. But like others who recently toured the new complex, he was impressed.
"I think they are going to do a great job with kids who want to learn and get better at their sport," he said, adding that Chelsea Piers was geared toward "tapping into the serious athlete."
He speculated the complex would benefit early on from being "the shiny new thing." But he said from his experience, the long-term success would depend on the caliber of an organization's staff and programming.
"If the Y is running a basketball camp, I might get say, 50 kids," he said. "But if I say Craig Austrie is there, I get 100 kids."
Tewksbury, who has touted the quality of the venues, espoused the same philosophy.
"The heart of soul of our business is the program," he said. "It's really what keeps people coming back."
The company has assembled a coaching staff of former and current professionals. At the top of the list is Gigi Fernandez, a former top-ranked doubles tennis champion and a two-time-Olympic gold medal winner.
Fernandez last year relocated to Stamford from Orlando, Fla., after her partner got a job at WWE, also on the East Side.
The former tennis pro had been at home raising the couple's 3-year-old twins, but in April she accepted an offer to become tennis director at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. "It's such an exciting venue to me," she said. "To have all these sports in one facility was outstanding."
She added the job also gave her the opportunity to develop a program from scratch.
Natalie Granger, the facility's squash director, had a similar enthusiastic response after seeing plans for the complex in late 2010. A reigning top-ranked American female player who lives in Greenwich, Granger said an all-in-one sports complex made sense for the area.
"People here tend to live their whole lives in cars," she said. "Parents are just ferrying their kids all around to these sports."
The company appeared to score a coup in January, when it announced a multi-year contract with Mid-Fairfield Connecticut Yankees, an elite youth hockey organization considered one of the best in the Northeast. With more than 300 members, it is said to be the largest single user of ice time in the area.
"What we fell in love with was the idea of a first-class, state-of-the-art facility that would provide us with a home arena and provide our clients and customers with opportunities beyond hockey," said Andrew Bella, one of Mid-Fairfield's board members.
He added: "It's a win-win for both them and us."
So far, would-be competitors are downplaying the impact of the arrival of such a behemoth rival, saying that there is more than enough business to go around for everyone.
Despite the loss of Mid-Fairfield as one of its users, Stamford Twin Rinks this week said it has filled all of the contracted ice times for the upcoming season.
"The vast majority of our people have entered into long term deals," said Mark Zito, general manager of Stamford Twin Rinks.
Twin Rinks is only facility in Fairfield County with two rinks that are NHL-regulation size, he said.
Although Chelsea Piers initially set out to build both an Olympic-sized rink and a NHL-sized one, it eventually settled on two rinks which are 2 feet shy of NHL size.
For Twin Rinks, which has been in business for 16 years, there is also the incumbent advantage of knowing the customers.
"We've been doing this for a long time, we've always been a community-based facility," Zito said.
In the case of the Stamford Y, Lamour said he viewed Chelsea Piers as more of a potential partner than competitor.
The downtown nonprofit serves a distinctly different population, one that relies on not only tuition assistance but mentoring as well. "We're looking at it and saying we're changing people's lives," he said. "Our families truly need us."
Where Lamour sees Chelsea Piers playing a role is by providing space and tutelage in areas where the Y is lacking, such as tennis.
Referring to Fernandez, he joked, "I mean, I want to train with her."
In New York City, Chelsea Piers has provided grants and established scholarships to enable children to skate as well as participate in its summer camps. In doing so, it has worked with various community organizations.
In Stamford, officials said they were beginning to learn of the city's different community groups.
Tewksbury said while the company has doled out some scholarships in Stamford, the level of community involvement would grow significantly over time.
"We're mainly focusing on getting our doors open," he said Thursday.
For Tewksbury, who conceived of the plan and has been appointed the president of Chelsea Piers Connecticut, the stakes appear to be high.
At the recent ribbon cutting ceremony, Roland Betts, the initial founder and chairman of Chelsea Piers, stood at the podium and confessed he and partner Tom Bernstein were not so sure of the idea at the outset.
But Tewksbury, he said, "is such a bulldog. He absolutely would not quit."
The company has declined to release its Stamford membership numbers, except to say that there are more than 200 children enrolled per week for its summer camp beginning Monday.
Although he said the company had initially performed market surveys, Tewksbury said the decision to expand to Stamford was mostly "gut instinct."
"The goal was to create something truly unique, spectacular and in demand," he reflected. He then added, "With a little bit of `if you build it, they will come.' "
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