HANOVER — Starland, the iconic little amusement park on Route 53, is about to begin a new chapter in its history. The family destination best known for its go-karts, batting cages, and Whac-A-Mole arcade games has been transformed into a state-of-the-art indoor athletic complex and entertainment center.
For motorists driving by, the Starland of old is unrecognizable: The retro-kitschy Starland sign that was a familiar landmark is no longer there, and the ancient arcade building has been torn down. The tired-looking driving range is also gone, and standing in its place is a beige warehouse-like building called the University Sports Complex at Starland, or “The U” for short.
At first glance, the newly built complex at 645 Washington St. doesn’t look very big. But that’s only the view from the front parking lot. Beyond those front doors lies a vast indoor space that houses a gigantic gymnasium with eight basketball courts, two full-size AstroTurf fields that can be used for soccer, lacrosse, and flag football, as well as an arcade, laser tag area, snack bars, locker rooms, fitness rooms, conference space, and classrooms.
“There’s nothing around here of this size,” Kevin J. Reilly, one of the managing partners of the 163,000-square-foot facility, said of the new Starland.
Outside, the old 9-hole miniature golf course is being replaced with a new 18-hole mini-golf course, and the batting cages and outdoor rock climbing wall are being upgraded. There are plans for a ropes course, zip line, inflatable obstacle course moonwalk, and bumper cars. Starland’s gas-guzzling go-karts — long a favorite — will soon be replaced with electric go-karts that are rechargeable.
“They’re environmentally friendly — we got rid of the gas,” said Jim Bunnell, general manager of the complex.
But while the smell of gasoline and the rip-roaring noise of lawnmower-like engines will be gone from the racetrack, drivers will still get the auditory experience of a grand prix thanks to a set of speakers built into each electric go-kart.
The go-kart track, indoor laser tag, and other attractions should be ready by early to mid-June, according to Bunnell.
The new Starland has already opened its doors. With a temporary occupancy permit in place, “The U” hosted its first basketball tournament on April 13 and 14, which drew 120 boys’ Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball teams. On the first day of the tournament, 3,000 people came through the building, according to Bunnell.
“The U” is now the official home of the South Shore Wolf Pack basketball program, which has 38 teams. It will also host basketball, volleyball, soccer, flag football, and lacrosse leagues for children and adults. The hours of operation will be 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. once all of the programs are up and running, according to Bunnell.
“The demand is there,” said the Duxbury resident, who previously served as executive director of the YMCA branch in Hanover. “We really want this to be a community asset.”
The vision for “The U” came from John Poirier, a police officer who lives in Norwell. As a youth coach and father of three young athletes, Poirier, who owns the South Shore Wolf Pack basketball program, said he saw the need for more athletic facilities and wanted “to develop something the whole family can go to.”
He sought to create a top-notch athletic training facility to complement Starland’s fun attractions. He calls the new complex “the ideal environment.”
Up until recently, he said, his basketball players practiced in a variety of venues in Norwell, Hanover, Pembroke, and Abington. Now, they can all be under one roof.
“We’re booked every weekend from this weekend through June, and every night of the week from 5 to 9 p.m. there’s basketball practice on every court,” said Poirier.
All of this is a huge change from the old amusement park, which for decades has been known as an affordable destination for family fun. Since the 1960s, youngsters in the south suburbs have begged their parents for money to drive the go-karts and bumper boats, and play the arcade games to win whoopie cushions and other cheap prizes. But after Starland’s founder, Robert Kilmain, sold the park in 2002, the subsequent owners of the park struggled with the challenges of operating the aging facilities through the financial downturn.
When Poirier and Reilly came onto the scene, Starland’s buildings and attractions were in rough shape. “It was decrepit,” said Reilly, who lives in Weymouth.
In 2011, Reilly and Poirier rallied a group of investors and formed Starland Partners LLC and Starland Holdings LLC, and purchased the 30-acre property for $2.7 million. The old Starland buildings and driving range were removed to make way for the athletic center and the new amusement park attractions that are there now.
The athletic complex is actually four-interconnected steel buildings. The 30,000-square-foot two-story building in the front will house the arcade games, laser tag, and a snack bar that overlooks the wooden courts and turf fields, so people can watch the sports teams in action below.
Beyond this front building is a 63,000-square-foot facility with a supersized gymnasium with eight wooden basketball courts that can be converted into 16 volleyball courts. (The owners say that hardwood flooring for the courts was imported from Germany.)
A second 63,000-square-foot building contains AstroTurf fields that measure 132 by 40 yards, which can be used for soccer, lacrosse, and flag football. Then there’s a 7,000-square-foot building with locker rooms, bathrooms, offices, and conference space.
The complex was designed by Shawn Malloy of CBT Architects in Boston, and the civil engineering work was done by Merrill Associates Inc., based in Hanover. The general contractor is Ironstone Construction, Inc. of Atlanta, and local subcontractors were hired to do the work, according to Starland’s owners. Barnes Buildings & Management Group Inc. of Weymouth put up the buildings.
While there’s still additional work to be done to complete the complex, the recent basketball tournament — the first event held at the new Starland — was viewed by many people, including Hanover town officials, as a success.
“It was busy — it was a very successful event, though,” said Anthony Marino, director of community services and the building inspector and health agent for the town.
Marino said Town Hall hasn’t heard serious complaints from residents about the new venue in town — only “minor stuff” related to the increase in traffic from people checking out the new place.
“We haven’t had too, too many concerns,” said Marino. “The town’s very glad to have them here. A lot of local businesses benefited over the [basketball tournament] weekend from the increased traffic.”