Strip Mall Rejuvenated as Athletes’ Haven

By Kevin Joy
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

On any given night, strip-mall storefronts in a dated plaza teem with life.

Wrestlers grapple. Fencers charge. Batters swing.

No dry cleaner, dollar store or Chinese takeout joint operates in the area.

Patrons instead arrive to work up a sweat.

Nearly two-thirds of tenants in the Dublin Village Center are sports-related businesses, attracting a diverse pool of athletes to the expansive development — its location obscured from the bustling Sawmill Road and Rt. 161 nearby.

“We’re more of a destination place,” said Brian Mannino, a former Ohio State University baseball player and coach who co-owns Mannino’s Grand Slam, a 24,000-square-foot facility with indoor batting cages. “Parents feel comfortable dropping their kids off here.”

Next door, a two-story space that in the 1990s housed the athletic-shoe store Just for Feet has been the site of Elevate Basketball Academy since 2011. (Long-ago shoppers might recall the defunct retailer’s in-house basketball court and second-floor walking track, both of which remain at Elevate.)

The parcel, retrofitted with hardwood floors once used by the Detroit Pistons of the NBA, hosts youth-league games, training camps and open-gym play.

On snow days and school holidays, the place draws a crowd during daytime.

“Dublin’s hurting for court space,” said Doug Meyer, the academy’s general manager who operated a flooring business in the Dublin Village Center for 15 years. “We’re jumping.”

On a recent Thursday, parents and children cheered over the din of electronic music as fifth-grade teams from the Central Ohio Basketball Association faced off inside.

Among the spectators: Ohio State University football defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, whose children use the offerings of both Elevate and Mannino’s.

“We’re here all the time,” said Fickell, a Dublin resident.

The confluence of such like-minded sovereign entrepreneurs might seem curious, but the setup suits the former coaches and star athletes seeking to launch cost-effective businesses showcasing their respective pursuits.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Matt Stavroff, president of Dublin-based Stavroff Land & Development Co., which purchased the center in 2009. “We didn’t plan this. It’s kind of neat when it’s the free-market situation working.

“We like the energy.”

That’s something the property could certainly use.

The 400,000-square-foot Dublin Village Center was a hot-spot destination for shopping, dining and entertainment when it opened in 1988.

As other big-box developments and commercial growth sprung up, so, too, did the center’s vacancies (it’s now about one-third empty). Various plans to redevelop the desolate plaza, including 300-plus apartments on the site last year, never materialized. Per Dublin rule, stores at the offset complex can’t erect signs along Sawmill Road.

Present Dublin Village Center businesses, in turn, pay lower rent in exchange for taking as-is spaces under short-term leases with a removal clause.

A $300 million mixed-use Crawford Hoying project dubbed Bridge Park set to take shape on 25 adjacent acres might one day encroach on the existing center.

Both Stavroff and his tenants declined to detail rent prices. Former OSU fencing coach Stan Prilutsky — program director at Columbus Fencing & Fitness, which occupies a vacant Jo-Ann Fabrics — said he’s probably paying about a third less than he would elsewhere in the area.

In the past two years, he has gained some students via families patronizing the center’s other businesses as well as foot traffic from the on-site AMC Dublin Village 18 movie theater.

Still, said Prilutsky, of the overall center: “It’s a dead space.”

Collaboration also has aided Dan Siegel, who left a 17-year career in jewelry sales in 2011 to launch Triumph Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He first rented a space inside Mannino’s (which now incubates a separate personal-training business) — with response strong enough for Siegel to lease his own space next door.

“They took a chance on me,” Siegel said of his landlord. “I think we’ve done pretty well.”

At Team Miron Wrestling, proprietor Miron Kharchilava — also a past Ohio State coach and former Olympic hopeful — is proactive. His windows are peppered with oversized photos of the gym’s award-winning youths who trained there.

The Powell resident relies not on location but his own reputation to attract clients to the facility.

Many, Kharchilava said, commute from several hours away. As one of the first sports tenants to open shop in the Dublin Village Center, the boss of Team Miron saw potential in the vacant landscape.

“I wasn’t looking at it saying: ‘Well, this is a great sport plaza.’ I just was confident at what I was doing,” said Kharchilava, a native of the Republic of Abkhazia, a Georgian breakaway province. “It needs a lot of work, a lot of cleaning.

I wasn’t afraid.

“I was lucky to get into this space I could afford.”

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