The noon rush is just getting underway at The Center in North Kansas City.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
People heading in from the parking lot for a lunch-hour workout pass an extensive aquatics center where a few swimmers patiently walk the curly-Q lazy river. To the left, outside an activity center with a few computers and a some dining tables, a dry-erase board is crammed with “senior happenings.” Further on, there’s a set-up for a lung health screening. And around the corner: an upper-level cardio-fitness center and a small group struggling through a midday “boot camp.”
Once a community center — if a city had one at all — meant a few rooms, perhaps an office, and an open gymnasium for pickup basketball games and the occasional kiddie craft program. But all that changed in the dawn of the 2000s. New centers or major renovations have cropped up in just about every major city in the metropolitan area, with the possibility of more on the way. And they’re bigger and more varied in their offerings than ever before.
Now city-run community centers strive to offer everything to everybody. Want to climb a rock wall? Check out The Center in North Kansas City. Like curling? Then Line Creek Community Center is your place. Or maybe you’d like a place for some pickleball with your friends. Try the Gladstone Community Center.
Community centers have risen to the top of cities’ must-have lists for several reasons, said Darin Barr of Ballard*King & Associates, a recreational consulting firm in Denver.
“Many cities are trying to adopt the idea of wellness within the community,” Barr said.
To that end they provide parkland, trails and pedestrian-friendly areas. A community center with a lot of fitness options for all ages adds to that, he said.
The centers, which can include meeting rooms and space for community theater, often end up being a source of pride for the city, Barr said. Studies show good community centers are particularly appealing to young families with children, who may take them into account along with the school district in deciding where to move.
The end result can be a positive economic impact on the community, Barr said.
Many of the biggest new centers in the area were built or renovated in the early 2000s.
North Kansas City was an early adopter of the bigger-center idea. The Center was built in 2000. At about 96,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest community centers in the Kansas City area.
As such it has the gamut of equipment and activities for its members. The aquatics center has a spray pool and spinning vortex for the kids, four lap lanes and something called a “bubble couch” to sit in. There’s a steam room, a dry sauna and three classrooms, plus three full-sized basketball courts. And there are classrooms for yoga, meeting spaces and babysitting room.
Because it’s so large, it functions almost as a regional center, said Greg Hansen, director of the community center. About a quarter of the people who use it come from south of the Missouri River.
Although many cities have built their centers with the help of a specially designated sales tax, that wasn’t yet an option when North Kansas City was building The Center. But the city didn’t have to rely on property taxes, either.
Instead, the city used money from the gaming enterprise fund — revenue collected from Harrah’s North Kansas City casino.
Liberty also has an older facility. The 58,000-square-foot center with indoor and outdoor pools, meeting rooms, basketball court and a 700-seat performing arts space was on the cutting edge when it opened in 1992, said community center manager Donna Kay Taylor. Liberty residents committed to a new center shortly after the old John F. Kennedy pool shut down in 1986, she said, leaving the pool at William Jewell College as the only one around.
The center was built with a 10-year property tax and expanded in 2003. Now user fees and a quarter-cent sales tax fund the center’s operations and capital projects.
The majority of the centers in the area, though, were built in the mid-2000s. Gladstone’s center opened in 2008, and Platte City and Parkville facilities opened in 2004 and 2005. In Lee’s Summit, Legacy Park dates to about 2004, as does The View in Grandview and the Harrisonville center.
The sudden building boom has a couple of causes, parks officials in several cities agreed, but one of the biggest drivers has been the Missouri General Assembly’s approval of sales tax dedicated to parks and recreation. Cities used that money to build the community centers and sold memberships for their day-to-day operations. All that happened just as people began to be concerned about obesity and healthy living.
The trend continues. Blue Springs, for instance, is planning a $35 million, 85,000-square-foot facility that would have meeting rooms, a 240-seat theater, aerobics and spin studios, and an indoor pool with lap swimming, slides, a lazy river and a therapeutic warm water area.
By comparison with other cities in the area, Blue Springs got a late start. City officials there have been talking about a community center since the late 1990s, said Dennis Dovel, director of parks and recreation, but “it just had not been taken to the next level.”
To build the center, the city will have to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November.
While the sales tax takes care of the construction, operations are usually funded by membership fees paid by individuals and leagues. Attendance at the new, bigger centers has been healthy, but the amount of operating costs recovered through user fees varies. Gladstone recovers all of its operating costs, while North Kansas City recovers about half.
The figure is much lower in Kansas City — closer to a third. That’s by design, said deputy parks and recreation director Terry Rynard. The city did not want to turn anyone away because they couldn’t afford membership cards. But it is also a policy the city is reviewing, she said.
Although the trend has been toward bigger and fancier centers in the city’s outer ring, the picture is a little different in Kansas City itself.
Currently, Kansas City has 10 neighborhood centers, but they are smaller than the bigger new centers. Hillcrest Community Center, for example, was built in 1995 and is about 22,000 square feet, with a gymnasium and an elevated track, fitness and community rooms, and meeting space but no pool, said Rynard.
Those centers were built to be more focused on the immediate neighborhoods, she said. But looking ahead 20 years, the city will be challenged to get more out of the space in those centers, Rynard said. Currently, fees recover only about a third of the cost of running the centers. More offerings will draw more members and more funds — one reason the larger centers with their variety of offerings are successful, she said.
“We can’t build 10 mega-centers,” she said. Instead, “a game room is going to have to become more than a game room.”
But the Kansas City centers, though small, have unique attractions. The Line Creek center, for instance.
Line Creek,at 5940 N.W. Waukomis Drive, exists for one reason and one reason only: ice sports.
Sure, there’s a fitness room. But it’s tiny, almost an afterthought. Most days, Line Creek Community Center is filled with classes and free skating. Although it is one of the few rinks in town with only one ice surface, Line Creek offers a dizzying array of options — adult and youth hockey, figure skating, speed skating, curling and synchronized skating.
Lee Orth, who despite a Canadian childhood learned to skate just three years ago, regularly drives from his home in Greenwood to play defense on the Fighting Leprechauns.
“I think the key to health is exercise, and the key to exercise is doing something you enjoy doing,” said Orth.
In the process, Orth, 68, said he has enjoyed the camaraderie of other players and the ice skating culture at Line Creek.
Kansas City’s newest center, Southeast Community Center in Swope Park, is a step toward the larger full-service centers of the suburbs. The $12.3 million center, with 47,000 square feet, opened in 2008 and doesn’t lack for bells and whistles — a spray ground for young kids, therapeutic and resistance pool, free weights and cardio equipment, and a large fitness room.
The Southeast center and recent improvements in the Greg/Klice Community Center are steps in the right direction, but the city is looking for more and better things to offer the community, Rynard said, and that may have a consequence in the Northland.
A feasibility study is underway on whether to build a center north of the river that may be larger and more regional than the city’s 10 existing neighborhood centers. Anne Garney Park, Hodge Park and Pleasant Valley Park are three sites being considered. The city also is studying changes in the programs it offers.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, another trend has emerged in community center building. Barr, of Ballard*King, said the tighter budgets of the recession have caused more cities to enter partnerships when building or renovating a center.
Often cities will join a health care provider, school district or YMCA in planning a center, he said. In rural areas, more than one entity may pool resources for a regional center that can offer more.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Northland.
Take the Gladstone Community Center pool. Gladstone’s 80,000-square-foot center has all the usual attractions: the cardio and weight equipment, the basketball courts, the elevated indoor track. But its pool is special.
The 25-yard pool with eight lanes and a deep water area sets the standard for area competitive swimming pools, said Gladstone Parks and Recreation Director Sheila Lillis. Even though North Kansas City has its own large community center, the Gladstone center is home to the four high school swim teams in the North Kansas City School District, she said.
And Platte County works with the YMCA of Greater Kansas City to provide community centers in Parkville and Platte City. The centers are owned by the county but managed by the Y. Brian Nowotny, director of parks and recreation for the county, said the centers have been popular because there wasn’t any other such facility available when they were built.
In Riverside, the situation is a little different. The city has a gymnasium for basketball, volleyball and pickleball, and a stage for live theater, said Lori Boji, parks and recreation supervisor for the city. But there is no indoor aquatics center.
Rather than build its own bigger facility with aquatics, though, Riverside decided it would be more cost-effective to subsidize its residents’ memberships elsewhere. For the past five or six years, the city has paid 75 percent of the membership dues at North Kansas City, Gladstone or the YMCA, she said. All are within five miles of Riverside, she said.
Consultants and city planners say a good community center meets a need that private gymnasiums cannot. If done right, a center provides a hospitable place for people of all ages and physical condition to try out new activities or just to congregate.
That sense of acceptance and community is one reason the centers have become so popular, said consultant Barr.
“There’s a segment of the population that does not feel comfortable going to a private health club,” he said.
Those people may start off at community centers but eventually gain confidence to go to the next level and join a private gymnasium, said Barr and other officials who support city-run centers.
But not everyone agrees about that. Matthew Inman, owner of Club 7 Fitness in Blue Springs, said business at fitness centers declines when a new community center goes up.
“How do you compete with a $35 million facility that doesn’t have to pay taxes?” he said. “Ultimately what you’re going to see is some health clubs go out of business.”
Inman said the addition of weight and cardio equipment in the plan was most troublesome to him.
“If they could prove to me a need and that local business can’t support that need, then I would support it,” he said.
Molly Wichman, co-owner of Life Transformations Fitness in Lee’s Summit was not as concerned.
“Yes, it would be competition,” she said. But in the end, “the consumer is going to go where they want to go.” And that depends more on the services offered, she said.
A national trade group representing fitness clubs also is skeptical about the trend. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association “supports and applauds tax-exempt fitness centers that fulfill their charitable mission by adequately serving the disadvantaged community. However, selling fitness services to adults who can afford them is a business. A tax-exempt fitness center that operates like a business should be taxed like a business.”
Dovel, however, said the proposed Blue Springs community center would be different enough from a health club that it should not take away business.
“I can understand their concern,” he said. “We don’t look at this as something that will try to take business away from them. We are trying to provide people what they’ve asked for.”
Community centers are designed as kid-friendly places that the whole family can use, with a nonjudgmental atmosphere to make the infrequent gym user feel comfortable, he said. In fact, he said, community centers in some cities have actually boosted private health club membership by introducing people to fitness who might not have ever tried a private club.
Tom Lovell, administrator of Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation, said that city is sensitive to businesses’ concerns. But most people will only drive to a facility that’s 10 minutes or less from their home or work. More fitness opportunities will improve everyone’s health consciousness and might attract more people to private gyms, Lovell said.
“The goal is to make the community healthier in every way we can. I know it’s also important to support business,” he said. “A rising tide floats all boats.”