One year ago, Gen La Rue opened PLAY Valley Springs in hopes of offering a place for kids to connect and play.
The small business, located next to Pizza Factory on the corner of Highway 26 and Vista Del Lago Drive, closed its doors on Feb. 29. The building’s lease was up, and rent would be too high to continue for another year, La Rue said.
Although PLAY has shut its doors, La Rue hopes the communal spirit of the place and the many friendships it formed will live on.
When the Stockton native and mother of two moved to Valley Springs with her husband a few years ago, La Rue found that there was a shortage in recreational areas for children.
“We were constantly commuting out of the area to have activities for the kids,” said La Rue, whose kids, Violet and Titus, are 4 and 6, respectively. “We felt trapped whenever we wanted to leave the house for a bit. It was a 45-minute drive to get somewhere. I found as I met other moms, they were having the same issues and doing the same thing. We thought, ‘It’s a need in the community and it’s worth it, so we just went for it.’”
The seed for PLAY Valley Springs had been planted, and the inspired mother was eager to spread fertilizer.
The vision for the space, according to La Rue, was simplistic – an open floor plan with room for running kids, play structures and plenty of toys.
As time passed, what started as a private venue for parties on the weekend and a public indoor playspace during the week grew to become a small community of families.
“During the week we were an indoor play space so kids ages seven and under could come in with an adult and have a space to play,” La Rue said. “Socialization, costumes, play structures, then on evenings and weekends, we had craft nights, Mom’s Night Outs, baby showers – kind of like a party venue for parents and kids, and it was just very family-oriented.”
Valley Springs resident Stephanie Shandel started taking her kids, Emma and Abbie, to PLAY in the summer of 2019 to beat the heat, since the hot playground was less than ideal.
The place had a “real atmosphere where people connected,” Shandel said. “Sometimes when you’re at a playground you don’t have that. You came and got to know the other moms and dads that were there and build relationships and a real community.”
Shandel said PLAY was especially nice for her daughter, Emma, 5, who is homeschooled, since it gave her time for socializing and connecting with playmates.
“Thankfully we’re still connected with moms and dads we met there, but my kids do ask when they get to see their play friends again,” Shandel said. “They often mention Miss Gen. She used to do dance parties, and when a song comes on, they’ll say, ‘That’s Miss Gen’s song.’ We really appreciated that she attempted and put this in our community even though it didn’t last.”
With most of La Rue’s experience being in office and coffee shop management, PLAY was her first go at opening a business.
Setting a rate of $50 per month for unlimited play time, it wasn’t a venture she intended to make too large of a profit on.
Still, La Rue hoped it’d be enough to keep the doors open.
“Tomorrow, we say goodbye,” reads a PLAY Valley Springs Facebook post from Feb. 28. “Get numbers of parents and kids your family has connected with at PLAY. Make plans to spend play time with one another outside of PLAY. This community and family we have formed has been incredible. Just because we have to close our doors doesn’t mean our friendships and kids’ friendships will end. Come sing, dance, imagine, play, drink coffee, laugh, do limbo, and enjoy free amazing Pizza Factory pizza with us. Tomorrow is a day to celebrate what this amazing year has been to our community. We love you all so much.”
Even with the sure monthly support of established regulars, the steep rent – which had been a huge investment in the first place – had proven to be too much.
“I opened this up because it was something I did out of passion,” La Rue said. “It was hard on our family. I was giving my all, six days a week. Our family was sacrificing so much.”
Commercial utility rates comparable to those of Pizza Factory added to the hefty financial burden.
On top of snowballing expenses, not enough community members wanted to buy in, according to La Rue.
“We would constantly find people complaining that their kids have nothing to do, then say, ‘I can’t afford to have my kid play here,’” La Rue said.
After unsuccessful negotiations to lower the rent with her landlord, the La Rues searched for other vacant buildings in Valley Springs that could support the vision – a large climate-controlled room.
They offered 75% of the asking price for properties in the Valley Oaks Center that had been vacant for years, but property managers refused to bite, according to La Rue.
“We have a lot of very angry parents,” La Rue said. “It’s the first time we get something incredible for our children and no one wants to support it. (Rent) is so inflated, and it’s also parents. For perspective, the last two weeks of being open, we were the busiest we’ve ever been …”