A job in Richland took Judy Heppler and her husband away from their native Battle Creek, but their ties to the community remain strong as they operate family entertainment venues along Columbia Avenue.
On 80 acres of land that the couple owns sits a Go-Kart and bumper boat business, an indoor 9-hole and 18-hole outdoor putt-putt golf course, batting cages, an airsoft and paintball area, a river tubing area, a video arcade, an outdoor driving range, and an indoor golf simulator business. More recent additions include Nutty Bavarian Cake and Candy supplies and Yoder Barn buildings, which aren’t part of the recreation businesses but are income generators for the Hepplers.
While sitting inside the building that houses the Hit 'Em Here business where the candy business, driving range, and golf simulators are operated, Heppler says the idea to establish family-oriented recreation was her husband, Jeff’s, idea. He is the Augusta Police Chief and often comes in after his day job is done to relieve his wife who works a few nights a week at Firekeepers Casino.
“We just do things on a whim,” Judy Heppler says. “We were up at Traverse City at a police chiefs convention and we were driving and we saw this place called ‘Arnie’s Funland’ that had bumper cars and boats and Jeff started taking pictures and then he said, ‘We’re going to build a park like this.’
“We came home and we looked around until we found a good piece of property and it happened to be in Battle Creek. Our roots are here, so even though we moved away, we haven’t really left.”
In 1986, they purchased the property at 2000 Columbia Avenue and worked that summer to get Riverview Recreation up and running. Heppler and her husband hired a couple of young kids to help them. At the time, the couple were parents of a newborn, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old.
“We set up a playpen underneath a tree and we just started building and worked all summer,” Judy Heppler says.
In early fall of that same year, they happened to be driving by the business and saw a number of cars parked around the Go-Kart track. The customers were ready even if the Hepplers were not quite.
There was no electricity or running water yet and while they could have kept driving, they didn’t, choosing instead to stop and unofficially open the business. The Hepplers put the Go-Karts out on the track and the drivers of the cars lined up with their headlights on so the Go-Karts could run safely.
“It was crazy that whole weekend,” Heppler says. “My husband, my mom, and I were working. There was a line of customers all day and night that weekend.”
The following year, bumper boats, and the indoor putt-putt course were added.
In 1995, they grew their family recreation business when the owners of Hit ‘Em Here, at 1790 Columbia, asked if they were interested in purchasing the venue which included an 18-hole putt-putt course, batting cages, and a driving range. They agreed, put up a building and brought in golf simulators.
“The business had been well-run and we were able to get the key and start from day one,” Heppler says. “We bought it because it was connected to our other property and it made sense to do it.”
Tubing became part of the entertainment portfolio two years ago after the couple’s son said they should do something on the Kalamazoo River. So, they purchased 20 tubes and today they have 150. Customers are put in at Bridge Park to enjoy a two-hour float down the river which their property backs up to.
Through the years, the attractions at each venue have changed and they aren’t the major draw they used to be, in part because of the addition of more entertainment options in the area. Even so, Heppler says she frequently hears people say that there is nothing to do in Battle Creek. Her response – they need to support what’s here which may encourage other businesses to open.
“When we started these businesses, the economy was booming and miniature golf and Go-Karts were really popular,” Judy Heppler says. “But, things go in cycles. People are playing games on their cellphones and they don’t go out and spend as much money on these activities.”
Then again, it was never really all about the money and getting rich, Judy Heppler says. “I’ve always had other part-time jobs and my husband has a couple of other jobs,” she says. There is a snowplow business for him and the casino job for her.
“I work 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. as a card dealer. I do it because I like it. I don’t sleep at night anyway.”
During the off-season for their recreation business, Heppler is the only full-time employee at the entertainment businesses. Another woman comes in on a part-time basis to help her.
May to September is their busiest time and then there are about 20 employees on-site at any given time. Many of these workers are with the Goodwill Connect
program, which partners with local businesses to provide employment opportunities for area youth.
Heppler says the young people she has employed through this program are “wonderful.”
The Goodwill Connects Program
The Goodwill Connects Program is designed to provide students from all four local school districts in the Battle Creek area an opportunity for career exploration, job training, and summer work experience. The goal is for successful participants to have opportunities for long-term employment.
Local businesses have the opportunity to work with and train their future labor force in a hands-on environment. Goodwill Connects consists of three phases to help students transition from a school to entry-level positions.
Ken Bauer, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland, Inc., says Goodwill Connects works with between 40 and 50 employers each summer and upwards of 150 youth. Area teachers are hired to be career mentors and work with the students and their employers.
The teachers monitor the students work performance and their progress on the job. If areas of improvement are cited, they will follow up to make sure those areas have been addressed.
“We have a very supportive environment for these kids,” Bauer says. “These employers are voluntarily participating and we are teaching job skills to kids who have never been in the workforce. These are at-risk kids who are getting employment skills and we’re getting them placed.”
That 96 percent of participating employers re-up year after year is a real testament to the success of the program, Bauer says.
“We went out and talked to a variety of employers before we started this program to see if they were interested,” Bauer says. “Employers know that training people takes time, but they see the bigger picture. They just buy into it. They see that they’re part of the process of improving the community.”
Heppler says employers like herself provide positive mentoring and role modeling, in addition to the job skills and experience for participating students. She says if employers have their employees dress and act a certain way the employees will likely carry that with them as they navigate a career path.
Many of these students are from low-income families, have not identified a path after high school, don’t participate in extracurricular activities at school, live in unstable homes or are parents themselves, Bauer says.
“They don’t have a lot of money and they some of them don’t have good role models when they get here,” Heppler says.
For her, it goes beyond setting a good example. Students who work for her have the option of bringing their lunch or buying food at a reduced cost at Heppler’s facility.
“I had one kid who said he didn’t have any food at home,” Heppler says. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me that."
She promptly went to McDonald’s and bought 20 hamburgers to feed that young man and others who didn’t have their own food. As a result of what she learned, Heppler will sometimes fix food for her young employees during their shift.
This willingness to give a little more than they have to goes back to the earliest days of the Hepplers' businesses. When they first started, they knew they’d have to establish prices that were in tune with the area’s economy.
“You’ve got to make it affordable for families and kids to come in,” Heppler says. “The way the economy runs here in Battle Creek, you have to understand what people can afford to pay.”
This business model appears to have paid off as they have watched second and third generations of families become their customers.
“We are trying to be a service to the community,” Heppler says. “We do it because we love people. They will always see one of the Hepplers on site. I want my people to know that I’m here and I care.”