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Indoor play gym may open in former Velocity space

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Velocity is long gone.

And now a local businesswoman hopes to replace the now-defunct soft-play gym and laser tag business in Empsall Plaza with a similar venture.

Vina Bonner, a mother of four and retiring Fort Drum military soldier, said that Velocity’s closing created a void for kids, so she plans to open Fun Xcape in another section of Empsall Plaza.

It would be located in the mostly vacant back section of the Empsall Plaza building she purchased in January from a Florida-based lending company, Bayview Loan Servicing LLC, for $132,000.

Facing the J.B. Wise parking lot, that section of the building would undergo $624,000 in renovations, which would include a “soft and play gym” for children, video game arcade, food court and climbing wall. It would cater to younger children in one “zone” and to kids ages 6 to 13 in another section, she said.

“Kids have nothing to do,” said Mrs. Bonner, who has a 3-year-old, 9-year-old and two adult children. She said the venture is her “passion.”

“This is something we need,” she said.

On Monday morning, the Watertown Local Development Corp.’s loan review committee unanimously agreed to give her a $150,000 loan to help finance the project.

The full board of the WLDC, also known as the Watertown Trust, needs to approve the seven-year loan, at 5 percent interest. It would be contingent on her getting a Small Business Administration loan from a bank, loan review committee members said.

Featuring a jungle theme and colorful play stations, the gym would be safe for kids of all ages because it features soft plastic parts, Mrs. Bonner said. Initially, four employees would work there and it would be open year-round. She would charge $4.95 per child.

She plans to gut the building and remove the second-floor, so parents can watch their children play. She has hired GYMO Architecture, Engineering & Land Surveying PC to design the project. It also would feature three birthday party rooms.

WLDC loan committee members like the proposal, in part because she paid for the building in cash and income is being generated from the five tenants that lease space there.

Members also were impressed with Mrs. Bonner’s credentials, which include work as former administrator of Guthrie Ambulatory Health Care Clinic at Fort Drum, possessing a master’s degree in business and teaching cadets at West Point.

Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Trust, said the business should attract people to the city’s business district. It would “fit in” with other projects going on downtown, he said.

“We need something to give life to downtown,” he said.

The business would have to overcome a “stigma” and negative publicity from Velocity’s closing in July, but Mr. Rutherford said the once popular children’s play business had become “dingy and dirty” over the years and people stopped going. Mrs. Bonner also stressed the business would not hold concerts for local bands, as was the case with the Dungeon, a music venue housed in the building’s basement.

Neighbors of Watertown has plans for another section of the former Frank A. Empsall Co. Department Store. Considered a separate property, Neighbors in December purchased some 30,000 square feet of space, in what is most recently occupied by Velocity from its previous owner, Psychedelic Entertainment LLC, Englewood, Calif., for $130,000.

Neighbors plans to convert that space into commercial space, Mr. Rutherford said. The floor above the Velocity space will be converted into 13 or 14 apartments as part of the Brighton.

In 1992, the agency completed renovation of the former Brighton Hotel, which was developed into a 36-apartment subsidized complex.

In related business, committee members also agreed to give Mrs. Bonner’s husband, Mark, an $80,000 loan to help finance opening State Street Wine and Liquors at 804 State St., a former gas station that most recently housed a car detailing business.

The full board is expected to approve that loan on Thursday.

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