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The Recession Finally Catches Up to University Rec Centers

In 2012, the recession may finally have caught up with the university rec center market. Universities continued to buy and build during the recession because budgets for most capital projects are planned years in advance, says Bill Crockett, director, university recreation and fitness, University of Maryland, Baltimore. However, 2012 will be different, he says.

The funding for the purchases, programming and renovations slated for this year likely was granted during the height of the recession, which means not as many were funded or started during the recession—and that could mean less building and buying in the next few years.

Less funding could affect the university market in several ways. First and foremost, it means that university officials and boards of regents will scrutinize the dollars spent more closely than in the past, Crockett says.

“Universities are looking for more accountability, robust decision-making that is data driven and enhanced assessment of programs and services,” Crockett says. Senior leadership will expect and demand more from their recreation services departments to provide data that demonstrates the value of services provided, the relationship of those services to students’ collegiate success and sound financial management. As costs for students rise in every area, university rec centers will be just one area where administrators will have to justify how tuition and fees are being used and to justify the necessity of the value returned.

Less funding might translate into renovations rather than new construction for rec centers, says Gene Grzywna, director of campus recreation at Northeastern University in Boston, because board of trustees and/or state legislatures might be more willing to fund cheaper renovations than expensive new construction.

Crockett says that the surge of facilities that opened between 10 to 15 years ago soon will need upkeep or renovation so they can reflect current design and programming trends.

Even though new construction has slowed and will continue to be slow this year, Crockett says that 2012 should be a buyer's market in terms of labor and materials, which should make renovation an attractive option at this time. Universities may see an upswing in the planning and funding stages starting this year, Crockett says, adding that he thinks more renovation projects will get underway.


Keeping up appearances will continue to be important even during times of austerity because rec centers still are used as recruiting tools for new students, which means they must have an attractive design and the latest equipment. However, purchasing new equipment each year or two might become more difficult, and Grzywna says that more schools may turn to leasing equipment, which would allow them to trade out equipment more often.

But leasing may be difficult at some schools, Crockett says, because many state schools discourage leasing, and some have state laws that prohibit it.

“The challenge will be to own or lease,” Crockett says. ”Leasing holds more potential for the future unless universities have well-planned equipment replacement/refurbishment plans in place.”

Crockett says that buying likely will continue to be flat or decline in 2012. Some rec center directors will wait to see what equipment is in development. Some directors may worry that manufacturers facing their own economic issues could go out of business before the recession is over, so they will wait to buy from those companies still in operation.

Whether directors lease or buy, more of them will emphasize maintenance of current equipment so they can get more from it before replacement, Crockett predicts, adding that buying will pick up by 2013 unless a true dip occurs in the economy.

These trends really mean that rec center directors must learn to do more with less and find new sources for funding, Crockett says. In addition, they will be expected to place more emphasis on the end-user experience, including better customization of that experience. Social media tools also will be used more to communicate, promote activities and integrate into the user experience.

As university rec centers embrace more integrated platforms for technology, including trying to add it to programming experiences, privacy and security concerns will need to be addressed, he says.

As far as programming goes, Kristen Miller, fitness director at Northeastern University, says the hot programs will include group training, high intensity workouts and Zumba.

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