MIDDLETON — The Essex Sports Center is suing a concussion management company run by a former Boston College and NFL player for failing to live up to an agreement to rent space in the center.
A complaint filed in Essex Superior Court this week says the company, NeuroSport, signed a five-year lease for commercial space inside the Essex Sports Center in 2019 but never opened its business on the site. The lawsuit asks the court to order the company to pay $166,502 in lease payments and other costs.
The founder and CEO of NeuroSport is Fred Willis, who played football at Boston College and in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers in the 1970s. His company offers concussion tests and guidance for athletes returning to play after a concussion, according to its website.
Willis, who lives in Salem, said in an interview that he was unaware of the lawsuit. He said the company stopped doing business at Essex Sports Center because its owner, Brian DeVellis, was difficult to work with. And he said NeuroSport, which had locations in Canton, Norwell and Tewksbury, has since shut down due to the pandemic.
"We're out of business," Willis said. "Tell him, 'Good luck.'"
DeVellis said in an email that NeuroSport began seeing patients at the sports center in late 2019 but ceased operations with no notice or explanation. All of that happened "well before COVID," he said. With the lawsuit, DeVellis said Essex Sports "seeks to be made whole under the lease and its personal guarantees."
According to the lawsuit, NeuroSport signed a five-year lease in August 2019 for commercial space inside the Essex Sports Center. The indoor facility has two ice rinks and a field house and leases space for other businesses, including a strength training center, a sports rehabilitation business, and a concession stand.
The lawsuit said that NeuroSport took control of its site at Essex Sports Center shortly after signing the lease but never built out the space in order to operate the business as required by the lease.
Essex Sports Center sent notices of default to NeuroSport in January and February of 2020. The company responded by paying rent for those two months but then stopped paying, the lawsuit said.
The sports center had filed an earlier lawsuit against the company in Salem District Court, and a judge ordered NeuroSport to pay $23,242 in rent, but the company refused to pay, according to the complaint in Superior Court. The new lawsuit is also seeking $143,260 that it says is due on the remainder of the lease.
Essex Sports Center opened amid controversy in 2017 after the state Legislature passed a law that allowed the facility to be built without a public bidding process. The center is privately run but is located on public land in Middleton on the grounds of Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School.
The state Legislature has since passed a budget amendment filed by Sens. Bruce Tarr and Joan Lovely that would require any future lease or other agreements with Essex Sports to follow state procurement laws under the oversight of the Inspector General's office. A bill to require a state audit of the sports center's finances is still being studied, according to Lovely.
As part of its deal with the state, Essex Sports is paying the Essex Tech school district $115,000 to lease the land, with a 2% annual increase. Superintendent Heidi Riccio said the district allowed Essex Sports to stop paying rent between April and August last year due to loss of revenue from the pandemic and make up the payments incrementally. She said Essex Sports is up to date on their payments, including the makeup payments.
The sports center's owners have also been involved in several lawsuits filed by contractors who built the facility as well as by an investor in the business. DeVellis said those lawsuits have been settled and Essex Sports has recovered well from being shut down during the pandemic.
"Essex Sports continues to enjoy a robust fan base in the region," he said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.