Community centers get bigger and better

10/02/2013 12:07 AM

10/02/2013 12:07 AM

The Legacy Park Community Center is a hive of activity in Lee’s Summit.

Shivery children in beach towels, fresh from swim class, exit into a parking lot packed with cars. Inside, a few steps past the fireplace and coffee cart, room after room is filled with people stopping for a quick yoga or Pilates session on the way home from work. Upstairs, the weight and cardio equipment is mostly occupied as runners and walkers take a few turns around the elevated track.

Community centers, if cities had them at all, once were a few rooms, perhaps an office and an open gym for pickup basketball games and the occasional kiddie craft program. But all that changed with the dawn of the 2000s.

New centers or major renovations have cropped up in just about every major city in the metro area, with the possibility of more on the way. And, like Legacy Park’s 58,000 square feet of fitness equipment, meeting rooms, basketball courts and indoor aquatics, centers are bigger and more varied than ever.

Now city-run community centers strive to offer everything to everybody.

Want to climb a rock wall? Check out The View, in Grandview.

Are you over 50 and looking to play pickleball? Independence’s Palmer Center is your place.

Or maybe you’d like to go a few rounds sparring in the ring. Try the newly renovated Gregg/Klice center in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s Line Creek center exists for one reason and one reason only: ice sports. The tiny fitness room is almost an afterthought.

But Line Creek’s ice rink is what compels Lee Orth to drive to the Northland from his home in Greenwood. Despite a Canadian childhood, he learned to skate only three years ago and now regularly plays defense at Line Creek for the Fighting Leprechauns hockey team.

He believes that exercise and learning new things are crucial to staying fit at his age of 68.

“The key to health is exercise, and the key to exercise is doing something you enjoy doing,” he said.

Community centers have risen to the top of cities’ must-have lists for several reasons, said Darin Barr, of Ballard King & Associates, a recreation consulting firm in Denver.

“Many cities are trying to adopt the idea of wellness within the community,” he said.

To that end, they provide parkland, trails and pedestrian-friendly areas. A community center with fitness options for all ages adds to that, Barr said.

The centers, which can include meeting rooms and community theater space, often become a source of pride for the city, he said. Studies show good community centers are particularly appealing to young families with children, who may take them into account, along with schools, in deciding where to live.

The result can be a positive economic impact on the community, he said.

Many of the biggest new centers in the metro area were built or renovated in the early 2000s. Legacy Park dates to 2004, as do The View and the Harrisonville center. Belton’s High Blue Wellness Center opened in 2000 but got an addition in 2008. In Independence, the city added space in 2004 for the Palmer Center, which is for people over 50, and the Truman Memorial Building.

The sudden building boom has a couple of causes, but one of the biggest drivers has been Missouri legislation authorizing local sales taxes dedicated to parks and recreation, as long as voters approve. Cities used that money to build the centers and sold memberships for 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 theater to seat 240, aerobics and spin studios, and an indoor pool with lap swimming, slides, a lazy river and therapeutic warm water area.

By comparison, Blue Springs got a late start even though officials there have been talking about a community center since the late 1990s. But it has shown up as a priority on numerous citizen surveys.

“This is the natural next step,” said Dennis Dovel, city director of Parks and Recreation. “It is affordable, it is feasible and it is doable. The market is not saturated.”

To build the center, the city is asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November.

While the sales tax takes care of construction, operations are usually financed by membership fees paid by individuals and leagues. And attendance at these new large centers has been healthy enough that cities are recouping almost all the costs.

While the trend has been toward bigger and fancier centers in the suburban ring, the picture is a little different in Kansas City itself. Kansas City has 10 neighborhood centers, but they are smaller.

Hillcrest Community Center, for example, was built in 1995 and is about 22,000 square feet, with a gym and elevated track, fitness and community rooms and meeting space but no pool, said Terry Rynard, deputy director of the city Parks and Recreation Department. Those centers were built to be more focused on the immediate neighborhoods.

But looking ahead 20 years, the city will be challenged to do more with the space it has in those centers, Rynard said. Fees now recover only about a third of day-to-day costs. More activities would draw in more members and more funds — one reason the larger centers are successful, she said.

A consultant recently rated Kansas City’s community centers just “average” in the variety and types of programming offered. People in focus groups and forums said they wanted more fitness classes, yoga, personal training and other programs.

“We can’t build 10 mega centers,” Rynard said. “A game room is going to have to become more than a game room.”

The city’s newest center, Southeast Community Center in Swope Park, is a step toward the larger full-service center. 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 pools, free weights, cardio equipment and large fitness room.

The Southeast center, and recent improvements in the Gregg/Klice Community Center, are steps in the right direction, but Kansas City is looking for more and better offerings, Rynard said. Voters approved a half-cent sales tax for parks and recreation a year ago that boosts the budget for community centers by $1.3 million.

To that end, a feasibility study is underway on whether to build a new center north of the river that may be larger and more regional than the neighborhood centers.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, another trend has emerged. Barr, of Ballard King, said tighter budgets have caused more cities to enter partnerships when building or renovating a center. Often they will join a health care provider, school district or YMCA in planning a center, he said.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Northland.

Gladstone’s center, open since 2008, has a competition lap swimming pool and diving area that is home to swim teams in the North Kansas City school district. Platte County partners with the YMCA for its centers in Parkville and Platte City. And Riverside found it more cost-effective to subsidize its residents’ memberships in nearby community centers.

Not every city has been in on the community center trend, though. Left out of the conversation is Raytown.

That city has no community center and no immediate plans to build one. At the same time, the Raytown branch of the YMCA has closed.

That disappointed Debra Ramsey, a Kansas City resident who was recently in Lee’s Summit’s Legacy Park center to watch her granddaughter take swimming lessons. Ramsey said it’s too far to routinely drive 25 minutes to Legacy Park from her home near Raytown, which was only five minutes from the closed Y.

Teenagers need someplace to go to stay fit, she said. “We should be able to keep what we’ve got.”

Having somewhere to go was a common theme among people at the Grandview center. Erica Grimaldi of Grandview has gone to the center a couple of times a week during the three years she’s lived in the city.

“They really try to do a lot with families,” she said. “For the price you get, they really do a lot of stuff.”

Nearby, Torin Riley of Grandview waited on family members and young men from a residential treatment facility where he works to finish their basketball game or weight training.

“They have everything everybody else has and really a little bit more,” he said.

Riley pointed out that the center is in the midst of a large open park with outdoor amenities like softball and a skateboard park. All that variety, a family-oriented setting and reasonable rates give it an advantage over the private gym he used to attend, he said.

On that point, he agrees with consultants and city planners who say a good community center meets a need that private gyms 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.

“There’s a segment of the population that does not feel comfortable going to a private health club,” said consultant Barr.

Those people may start off at community centers but eventually gain the confidence to join a private gym, said Barr and others.

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 Blue Springs 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 serving the disadvantaged community.”

“However,” the group said, “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 Blue Springs center would be different enough that it should not lure clients from health clubs.

“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.”

Tom Lovell, administrator of Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation, said that city is sensitive to businesses’ concerns. But most people will drive to a facility only if it’s 10 minutes or less from their home or work. The city’s decision to provide more fitness opportunities will improve the health consciousness of everyone and perhaps even get more people going to private gyms, he 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.”

Many times, residents are just grateful for a place to congregate.

Far up on the fourth floor of the Roger T. Sermon Community Center in Independence, there’s a greenhouse full of cacti and other sun-loving plants tended by the Independence Garden Club. Across the hall, a dozen men sit and chat as they create wooden figures in their twice-weekly, three-hour woodcarving group.

Larry Sutherland drove from Lone Jack to sit with friends while he worked on little snowmen, “killing time” until he starts a larger project depicting a French mountain man. Bill Landes has come from Grain Valley to work on flat Santa ornaments for his grandkids.

It’s all about getting out and sharing a common interest, said Glen Marley of Independence.

“The guys help each other out. When you get stumped, someone will tell you how to get out of it,” he said.

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