Monday, May 24, 2004

Rec centers: Bigger, better

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

rec center
Fitness instructor and personal trainer Tonya Burgin shows her students how to do a plank maneuver on an exercise ball at the Mason Community Center.
(Photos by Glenn Hartong/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
rec center
A walker walks along the .8 mile track (top) as others utilize the exercise equipment at the Mason Community Center.

WEST CHESTER TWP. - When Nora Rubinoff hears women at her son's Lakota elementary school talking about attending programs at the Mason Community Center, she anticipates the day her township has its own facility.

"Why should they be running over to Mason? I want one here for myself, my family and my neighbors," says Rubinoff, the mother of two sons.

In two years, her suburban daydream could be a reality. Township trustees soon could approve building a $33 million mega-community and recreation center, joining a growing national trend for the latest gotta-have-it, high-priced amenity among booming suburbs.

When Blue Ash opened a 40,000-square-foot center 25 years ago, it was state of the art and considered the best in Greater Cincinnati.

But that was then.

This is now: West Chester's 151,380-square-foot center would follow Mason's slightly larger center - attached to Mason High School, its project partner - that opened last year. It would be 31/2 times the size of the new Burlington, Ky., YMCA opening next week, and nearly twice the size of the Blue Ash center, which doubled its size in a 1994 expansion.

West Chester plans something for everyone: an indoor leisure pool with slides, lazy river and lap lanes; an eight-lane competitive pool and grandstand; sauna; whirlpool; two basketball and two racquetball courts; a field turf multipurpose room for soccer or other sports; fitness and aerobics areas; jogging track; party rooms; messy art rooms; meeting rooms; and senior center.


A comparison of recreation center and YMCAs by square footage:

• Lebanon Countryside Y: 220,000

• Mason: 158,300

• West Chester Township (proposed): 151,380

• Kettering: 145,000

• Blue Ash: 80,000

• Evendale: 52,000

• Burlington YMCA: 42,000

• Boone County Recreation Center: 22,000

Source: Enquirer research  

Included in the price tag is a 20,135-square-foot outdoor pool attached to the building on 18 acres at Union Centre Boulevard and West Chester Road, across from Lakota West High School.

Fans of the centers say they are amenities that foster hometown pride and become community focal points, bringing together newcomers and longtime residents to meet, mingle and play.

"There's now a need seen to cater to citizens from the cradle to the grave," says Molly McClure, Anderson Township parks director and president of the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association. "It's not just for fitness. It's providing activities for folks of all ages, and giving a sense of community."

Critics say they can become costly for local governments and residents.

Tim Buckley of the Boston-based International Health, Racquetball & Sportsclub Association, which questions the need for taxpayers to fund competition for private sports and fitness centers, warns: "These are Taj Mahal-type facilities that eventually are a drain on the community."

Big centers a national trend

It's not just a local trend.

Chris Chivetta, a St. Louis architect whose company has designed more than 100 sports and recreation facilities, says the national trend began about 20 years ago. Kettering, a Dayton, Ohio, suburb, has a 145,000-square-foot complex, while the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville operates a 157,000-square-foot facility. Other states boast bigger community and recreation centers - 200,000-square-feet each in Dearborn, Mich., and Elgin, Ill.

The Blue Ash community center was considered state of the art when the 40,000-square-foot gymnasium and meeting rooms opened 25 years ago. The 1994 expansion added a fitness room, a basketball court with bleacher seating and a banquet room.

"With lifestyle changes, people want a place where they can recreate, socialize and exercise with their families. People are coming there younger, and staying there longer," said Chivetta, principal of Hastings & Chivetta Architects, which is designing the West Chester complex.

These huge suburban centers don't come cheap. The Mason center was built with a $21 million bond issue approved by voters in 2000. West Chester Township has up to $40 million to build the center at no additional expense to residents from tax-increment financing money generated from the Union Centre Boulevard development. The township's vision plan adopted in 1993 called for a multiuse community center to be built by 2012.

Other Greater Cincinnati communities, without such funds available, have looked to the YMCA to help provide smaller fitness and fun centers.

On June 1, the 22,000-square-foot Tri-City YMCA in Florence, with outdoor and indoor pools, will become the Boone County Community Recreation Center managed by the YMCA.

The county paid $2.2 million for the facility, while providing land in Boone Woods Park in Burlington for the 42,000-square-foot R. C. Durr YMCA. As part of the deal, the outdoor Burlington pool will be open to all county residents, not just Y members, said Gary Moore, Boone County judge-executive.

"My philosophy is that the county shouldn't be in the business of owning and operating a pool. And we didn't want to have to subsidize it each year," Moore said.

Like West Chester, Boone County's master plan had called for a community center. But Moore said the county was better served by contracting with the YMCA, and investing more in police, roads, water and sewers, and preserving green space.

Warren County's fast-growing Deerfield Township, and neighboring Symmes Township in Hamilton County, are talking to Lebanon's Ralph J. Stolle Countryside Y to build an $11 million branch on Montgomery Road. Deerfield trustees on May 18 approved a letter of intent from the Countryside Y.

The 80,000-square-foot facility - about one-third the size of the five-pool, 220,000-square-foot Countryside Y - would have a six- or eight-lane competitive pool, two basketball courts, another multipurpose gym, cardio workout area and classroom space.

"For Deerfield Township, it's a quality of life issue. It enhances the residents and businesses of that area," said Steve Boland, Countryside Y president and CEO.

"We serve all of Warren County. For us, it would be wonderful to have programs in the southern end of Warren County. The longer we don't have a facility there, the harder it is for those people to travel up here (to Lebanon)."

Concern over costs, fees

In Wyoming, City Council has dropped plans for a $20.8 million recreation complex after residents spoke out against a proposed 6-mill levy that would generate about $1.5 million a year. Instead, council will consider a new $2.4 million pool in the next two years' budgets.

Even in Mason and West Chester, money for the huge recreation centers continues to be a worry.

Mason's center marked its one-year anniversary March 1 with a $585,000 deficit. The $450 membership fee paid by 1,038 families covers only about 80 percent of the budget, said Michael Hecker, Mason Parks & Recreation director.

"We're trying to get to get to 100 percent, but it's difficult," Hecker said.

Very difficult. McClure said she has "toured 150 community centers, and most of them don't break even. I know the West Chester model says they will do more than break even, and maybe they can. But most nationwide don't."

Centers in Mason, Blue Ash, Evendale and other communities are subsidized by income taxes or levies.

West Chester Township trustees say their decision to approve construction hinges on being convinced the center would be financially self-sufficient. They say they could walk away from the project - even though they have had five consultants (contractor, architect, engineer, financial feasibility and public relations firms) working on the project six months.

"We can't build what we can't afford to operate," said trustees President Catherine Stoker.

The most vocal West Chester critics have been FitWorks owners Randy Stanifer and John Janszen, who see the mega-center as competition.

"It's going to lose money, and they don't have a contingency plan. Then we'll have to pay a tax to keep it operating, and my tax dollars will be supporting my competition," said Stanifer, a township resident. The businessmen don't believe consultants' reports saying the center could make a profit.

Consultants have recommended that West Chester family memberships cost $625 to $940 a year. Trustee George Lang talks about families paying up to $1,100 - more than double the rates for Mason or the Lakota YMCA ($465) in Liberty Township, and more than the Countryside Y ($885).

Although Lang proposes a Y-like scholarship fund to help some families, others are concerned about Lang's pricing plan.

Rubinoff, who also belongs to West Chester swim and tennis clubs, said $1,000 "would strain my budget. As a modest middle-class parent, that would be pretty expensive. I'd expect to pay more like $600-$800."

Said Mason's Hecker: "When we raised our prices $75 (this year), some people quit. When you're a public facility, there is an expectation that your rates will be less than the YMCA. That's something that West Chester should be worried about, or else you become an exclusive club."


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