Opening University Rec Centers to the Community

Opening University Rec Centers to the Community

Campus Relations: To build bigger rec centers and boost operating budgets, many universities are opening up to community memberships and partnering with local governments.

If you stop by the $10 million wellness center at South Dakota State University (SDSU), Brookings, SD, in the late afternoon, you'll see students working out, playing intramural sports and even refilling prescriptions at the center's health clinic and pharmacy. But perhaps a more surprising sight is the community members you'll see working out alongside students.

In a normal month, the center has 20,000 student visits and 8,000 community member visits, according to Ruth Schroeder, wellness center director at SDSU. To help offset operational costs and improve the health and well-being of the community, the SDSU Wellness Center offers a range of community membership options.

SDSU isn't the only university that offers community memberships — it has become a trend, says Jimmy O'Connor, accreditation manager, National Recreation and Park Association.

“With university rec centers, it's quite common, if not universal, that most university rec centers have a public membership option to diversify their revenue base,” O'Connor says.

Community memberships do help increase operational revenue, Schroeder says.

“I would say the primary purpose of the community memberships is operations [revenue] to pay for the staff and custodial employees,” she says. That revenue helps support facility operations, including salaries for the 100 to 150 student employees and custodial staff, plus maintenance, equipment upgrades and resurfacing floors.

Because community members often are older and more financially secure than students, offering community memberships also can increase ancillary revenue at a university rec center, says Melissa Elfering, fitness center director, Eastern Washington University (EWU), Cheney, WA.

The community members at EWU are more likely to pay for personal training than students because they're more comfortable with it and they often have done it before, Elfering says. Students, on the other hand, may not have the money for personal training or aren't sure they want to spend what money they do have on it.

Not only do universities use revenue from community memberships for funding, but a growing number also are partnering with local governmental entities to build multi-use rec centers.

“Higher education experience with fitness and recreation has produced a lot of impressive facilities with huge operating deficits,” says Hervey R. Lavoie, architect and president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver. “These institutions are looking for ways to have their cake and eat it, too … that is to build huge, impressive facilities but have them be financially sustainable over the long term.”

This trend is especially prevalent in smaller communities where the university and city have closer relationships, says Brian Beckler, senior principal, Ohlson Lavoie. Even though all facilities on a university campus are subsidized by states or cities, rec centers can be designed to help offset operational costs as much as possible, he says.

“It's true that more often than not they lose money, but it's a service like a library — it's something they have to have on campus,” Beckler says.

Construction for the SDSU Wellness Center was paid for by student fees, community donations and a $500,000 donation from the city of Brookings, Schroeder says. The funding helped SDSU build a climbing and bouldering wall, an indoor walk/run track, a 25-yard indoor pool, three basketball courts and three group exercise rooms.

But this collaboration can cause commercial club operators to claim that the funding and community memberships are a conflict of interest.

“Personally, I've never heard of other universities doing it [offering community memberships],” says Gregg Stern, co-owner of Powershop Gym Inc., a company with three clubs in Brookings. “Most of the university centers I've heard of are for students. To me, it's kind of a conflict of interest, especially since they're tax-exempt and state-funded.”

Local residents are impressed by the magnitude of SDSU's new, multimillion dollar facility, Stern says.

“The university is probably our biggest competition in town,” he says. “We've lost a couple of clubs in this town since they opened the new wellness center.”

Brookings, which has six fitness facilities including the SDSU center, supports a student population of about 11,000 and a local community of about 20,000 people. In a town that size, loyalty to the college is part of the reason the SDSU center is so popular.

“People feel like they should support it, whether they're alumni, or sports fans or they have students up there,” Stern says.


The Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, Manassas, VA, was built through a collaboration between George Mason University, the city of Manassas and Prince William County, VA. All three parties entered an agreement to split the cost and debt service for the$17 million facility over 20 years.

Although the university owns and operates the facility, the fee split was based on projected use, then adjusted later for actual use, says Leslie Shinners, general manager for the center. In the 1990s, the city, county and university all were looking to build a rec center, so administrators at the three entities decided to work together on a revenue-neutral facility, she says.

“None of the three organizations were in any position to be able to build what they wanted to build and serve the community needs alone,” Shinners says. “If it hadn't been a partnership, it wouldn't have happened. At least there was no promise of it when it was built in the late 1990s. The city and county are happy with it. Their contribution is much lower than if they'd built their own facility.”

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The 110,000-square-foot facility includes cardio, aerobic and strength studios; two pools; a whirlpool; family locker rooms; a full gymnasium; racquetball courts; a child care center; and a full range of adult and youth programming.

The Prince William campus is part of a regional network of four Mason locations. The main campus is located in Fairfax, VA. The Prince William campus also is home to the recreation, health and tourism school, so student employees get hands-on education working with a wide age range of patrons.

Only 7 percent of the center's 6,000 members are students. Many of the remaining members are part of the local community.

“It's a great complementary use in our case,” Shinners says. “Students are primarily here during the day, so we're busy during the day, but not as busy as we are from 4 o'clock [p.m.] onward. Most students shuttle in from Fairfax, which is about 20 miles away.”

Many of the community members visit the center after work in the late afternoon and evening. And although the town now has several other commercial clubs, that wasn't always the case, she says.

“When we first opened, there was a dearth of health clubs in the area,” Shinners says. “In the past four to five years, as the population has grown in the area, they have opened up a few chains. There's enough potential business to sustain our center.”

The center maintains its market share by promoting its pools and its family atmosphere with its wide range of programming, she says.


Another school that forged a close partnership with the city government is Portland State University, which sits in downtown Portland, OR. In January, Portland State opened a $62 million, six-story rec center that also hosts Portland's city archives, classrooms for the school of social work, retail stores and restaurants. The partnership was a win-win for the school and city, says Scott Gallagher, director of communications at Portland State.

“The city heard we were building, and they were trying to put together money and heard we had some tenants planned,” he says. “They needed a new place to put city archives, so we combined efforts, and it made good sense to do it. The archives will be across the plaza from our school of urban design and public affairs. It was a perfect combination of need and opportunity. Having the city as a partner allowed us to do things we might not have been able to do without them.”

Investors have a condo-like agreement, in which each entity that paid to build space also owns that space. Shared costs include the building's foundation work, lobbies and HVAC system.

The new facility is the only dedicated student rec center on the campus of 29,000 students, says Alex Accetta, director of campus rec. Although the fitness facility won't be open to the entire community, university administrators are examining limited membership options.

“We're looking at different membership types for major tenants,” Accetta says. “Employees at the city archive and Oregon system chancellor's office will be able to get memberships. The rec center was built for students because they're footing the bill, so it's not open to the general community.”

The rec center features a large cardio and weight room; an aquatic complex that includes a lap pool, leisure pool and whirlpool spa; new locker rooms; a three-court gymnasium; a running track; a rock climbing and bouldering wall; and a two-court gymnasium.

The new facility is proving to be a social hub for the urban campus, Accetta says.

“As an urban school, the rec center is a place that students can come and meet people around shared interests,” he says. “It's a social place. Students can exercise and go downstairs and eat, and we can link being healthy and being active so students do better in school.”


Offering community memberships in the rec center at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, allows students to interact with alumni and older members in a less intimidating environment, says Charles Allen, CSCS, fitness coordinator, department of campus recreation.

The school's Turner Center has 110 community memberships that are not affiliated with the university. The 150,000-square-foot facility includes classrooms and labs for the college's department of health, exercise science and recreation management. The school's parks and recreation management department offers aquatics classes for older adult community members at the Turner Center.

The center's amenities make it an attractive alternative to the commercial clubs in town, Allen says. “There are at least four other fitness facilities in town, but a lot of community members recognize they're gaining access to more than just a fitness facility,” he says. “We've got basketball courts and an indoor pool and locker rooms that other fitness facilities in town don't offer.”

Although the university has offered community memberships for many years, it does not advertise them because of overcrowding concerns, Allen says. The school had 8,000 students when the center opened, but it now has 16,000 students, and the rec center has not been expanded.

But welcoming community members could go a long way toward cementing future funding deals between universities and governmental entities. It's a new business model that administrators at many university rec centers find mutually beneficial.

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