A Tale of Two Cities

Games of compare-and-contrast can be fun. They also provide a method to evaluate and learn from those things being compared and contrasted.

In the parks and recreation business, the rules of this game often morph. The simplistic compare-contrast approach yields to the more complex chess-like game of evaluating and defining the needs of each community. The check-mate is declared when facilities are overflowing with satisfied patrons.

And so it is with Medina, Ohio and Longmont, Colo., two strikingly similar cities whose newly-constructed recreation centers meet the somewhat different needs of their communities.

Medina and Longmont are both home to burgeoning populations, with large influxes of young families. Both are distinct cities with long histories separate from their much larger neighbors, Cleveland and Denver/Boulder respectively. And, both have developed as bedroom communities, feeding workers to the larger cities while providing a great quality of life conducive to those young families.

Though the cities seem to be demographic mirrors of each other, comparing and contrasting the two approaches to their new recreation centers would be unfair, and well... simplistic.

Instead, it's best to tell two stories -- tales, if you will -- of how these two communities created recreation centers that meshed with the distinct personalities and needs of their communities. They also learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way, from which all parks and recreation departments can learn something.

Medina, Ohio

The City of Medina has a unique relationship with the local school district. It's a long-time partnership that forges handshake deals. A good analogy is the friend who buys something for you, knowing you'll return the favor. There's no need to keep records. The slate is always clean.

"We utilize 17 of their ball fields in the summer, and they utilize some of ours for competition. We have paid to put lights on school property, and a lot of our recreational opportunities were through the schools," explains Kenn Kaminski, director of parks and recreation for Medina.

Given this interaction, it was only natural that the issue put to voters to build a new recreation center would be tied directly to a school bond initiative. A previous initiative to build a new rec center had lost, as it was tied to other city works that had little or nothing to do with recreation, says Kaminski.

This time, the vote passed, creating a new high school and a connecting recreation center. The new recreation center, which opened to the public on Dec. 7, serves both the schools and the general public.

The trick would be to balance the needs of both and make sure students weren't stepping on the toes, both literally and figuratively, of rec center patrons.

Two Birds, One Stone

"We give the school the money, they build the project and we manage the facility. Basically it's a double-win situation -- the residents get the biggest school in the state and a rec center without raising income taxes in the city," says Kaminski.

The bond issue did raise property taxes, but the additions help create greater property values. Plus, research points to the fact that schools and recreation top the list of residents, regardless of where they're located.

The new school and rec center are connected by one secure entrance to the field house, which has four full basketball courts and 24 hoops, 12 of which can be lowered to eight feet. The courts can be converted into tennis, volleyball and badminton, and one has a batting cage.

"We sat down with gym teachers, athletic teams and anyone else who used their competition gym, and asked what their needs would be. From that we were able to come up with a scheduling template. For example, we know there will be two gym classes here just about every hour of the day," says Kaminski.

"Their athletic teams usually stayed until about 10 p.m., and one of the goals of this project was to get them home by six or 6:30. Now they're able to bring their teams over here to practice, so they can bring their teams here from 3-5."

Schools will also utilize the new competitive pool. In response to this opportunity, the district now has a swimming curriculum, something it didn't have before.

The competition pool will allow for swim meets, complete with its own entrance, seating and a bulkhead that can change the configuration from meters to yards, depending on the requirements of the meet.

The school will have its own locker rooms in the facility, rounding out the school-specific side of the rec center building. The rec center will also offer opportunities for work-study programs and intramural athletics for kids not involved in interscholastic athletics.

"The building itself was designed to segregate the high school kids from the patrons. We had coffees where we went to people's homes during the selling of the ballot issue. A lot of people said they didn't want to recreate with high-school kids," says Kaminski.

"For example, when the high-school kids use the field house the area they're using is separated by curtains. They have separate locker rooms. There will not be a time when our patrons won't be able to do what they want to do. The only exception is during a swim meet, but the leisure pool has three lap lanes and will be open for lap swim during swim meets."

The building, by design, segregates high-school users from rec center users. The timing of school with everyone else's workdays naturally helps keep peak times on either side from overlapping. As Kaminski notes, those workday hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. are typically slow. The peak and slow times for both sides fit together like clockwork.

"We studied a lot of recreational trends and usage patterns throughout the area and we felt very confident that we would be able to do this," says Kaminksi.

Part and parcel with this strategy was security. The entrances are tightly regulated, particularly the one entrance to and from the high school.

"That's why we have one door into the school -- we don't want a bad person to get into our facility and into the school, and vice-versa. We're able to tell you exactly who is going in and out of that door," says Kaminski. "Our field house is actually in the basement of the school because of the topography of the ground. It's a lot more than you just walk through the door and you're in the school."

The high-school kids meet upstairs, the coach or teacher slides their ID through card through a reader and the door unlocks. Then, the coach or teacher brings the children in and the door automatically shuts and locks behind them.

Once downstairs the teacher slides their card again. Once that's approved they all go into the field house, the door shuts behind them and they're locked off. That door can't be opened again until they slide their card to go back through it. Plus, there are only a few people who have security cards that open the doors.

The Layout

The competition pool is separated from the leisure pool by a wall. The leisure pool includes water geysers, a spray ground, a 129-foot water slide, a current channel, a hot water spa and an outdoor sundeck.

Adjacent to the leisure pool is three sets of locker rooms -- a general patron locker room, three family locker rooms and a physical education locker room for the schools, which is used as overflow for the other locker rooms after 5 p.m., weekends and during the summer.

The fitness center is about 8,000 square feet, with 13 treadmills, five upright bikes and five stationary bikes. The room is split in two, with cardio and mechanical weightlifting equipment on one side and free weights on the other (for more about the fitness centers in Medina and Longmont, see the sidebar on page xx).

Other fitness amenities include two 2,000 square foot aerobics rooms with two separate sound systems, a 1/12-mile track and a spinning area.

Three community rooms can either be rented for social events or used for rec center programming. One of the rooms has its own kitchen, and one has a removable wall for creating one very large room, or two smaller ones. Kaminski says "the technology in this building is incredible. We have voice, video and data throughout the facility."

The child care area, called the Rascal Room, is connected to an outdoor playground. When the Rascal Room is closed, patrons can use the outdoor playground.

The cafe is run by the rec center, with food -- like bagels, Danishes, sandwiches and soups -- supplied by a local restaurant. It's another area of local partnership that benefits the rec center, the public and the restaurant.

Medina's rec center has actively been seeking these local partnerships to help enhance its new facility. The rec center has a contract with Medina General Hospital; the hospital will use the facility to provide physical therapy to its patients and the rec center's patrons.

"The schools contract out for their athletic training, so they'll be working out of there as well. If you're a patron you can go to the hospital area to be assessed," says Kaminski. "Let's say you hurt your back doing squats, they're able to point you in the right direction, whether that means you need to see a doctor for further treatment or if you just need to go home an put some ice or heat on it. If your doctor decides you need rehabilitation, you can do it right here."

Longmont, Colo.

Longmont's new recreation center is a classic case of supply meeting demand. Completed in March 2002, residents flocked to the rec center in droves, from opening day and all through the summer.

The biggest attraction was the indoor aquatics facility. After all, if you swim outdoors in Colorado you can get a chill, even when it's 90 degrees outside. The dry air, a wet body and some shade can make for a cold combination.

But beyond the physics of high-altitude, dry-climate outdoor swimming and the resulting need for indoor options, Longmont's rec center combines the latest and greatest equipment and amenities that can be found along Colorado's Front Range.

"This was one of the most recent rec centers that has been built on the Front Range of Colorado. It incorporated a lot of the designs and improvements from other facilities. It turned out better that way and we learned a lot from everybody else who had built rec centers," says facility supervisor Troy Houtman.

"We learned better lighting and color schemes and the best size and shape of the pool and gym, among other things. We were able to prioritize a little easier."

First Things First

On the lighting side, the rec center provides more indirect lighting than direct lighting. It's flush with windows, providing a pleasant and natural aesthetic to go along with its direct western views of 14,000-foot Long's Peak.

The front desk was built right at the entranceway to take advantage of the natural light and to move patrons quickly to their recreation.

The direct lighting system is automatic and is controlled by timers and sensors so that the large facility is maximizing its energy usage.

While the facility has curb appeal and makes a great first impression when you enter the doorway, the bottom line is recreation.

"When we were hosting public meetings with the architect we were trying to find out what the community really wanted. They brought in user groups from all different areas -- swimming enthusiasts, folks who wanted to work out, and other recreation groups," says Houtman.

"They were given a puzzle and $8 million -- a gym costs X amount, a climbing wall this much, a pool, racquetball courts, a gym, locker rooms, and so on, will cost X amount. We had to put the public together, use this money and prioritize what kind of activities to host. That's where we came up with some of the spaces. So, for example, the gym has three courts instead of two. Also, that $8 million amount was increased to $12 million to accommodate all of the community's needs."

These sessions and tracking usage and demand since the rec center has opened produced two common themes -- keep as much open recreation time as possible and keep the fee structure simple.

"We were expecting to do a lot of programming, but the open recreation time is so popular and the demand was to keep the entire facility open just for drop-in and recreational use, whether that's volleyball, badminton, basketball, swimming or working out," says Houtman.

"When attendance starts to slip we'll start programming those times in. In the summer we didn't have any programming, except for some water aerobics and fitness classes. I think the newness of the facility will slowly wear off, and when that drops down we'll fill up that space with programming."

That early demand was so great that Houtman says they had to beef up the staff to keep up. More staff hours were added to the weight room and the climbing wall, and a gate attendant was added to monitor people coming in and out of the rec center.

The rec center's fee structure helped keep those busy months manageable, but that was not the primary reasoning. Again, it was based on feedback from potential users before the facility was built.

"Our philosophy was that we wanted to keep things simple and easy for our customers -- there wouldn't be five different prices for five different things. It's turned out really well; people are really surprised when they walk in," says Houtman.

The drop-in fee includes any fitness class, climbing wall, swimming pool and gym. Extended passes are also sold on a 10-day, 20-day, quarterly and annual basis.

The passes are used with a swipe card to log in the number of days used. If someone wants to attend a fitness class they're given a date-specific card that is then given to the instructor.

Lay of the Land

As noted earlier, the main attraction at Longmont's rec center is the aquatics area. There are two swimming pools -- a leisure pool with two slides and a rectangular lap pool with a diving board.

The leisure pool has a body and tube slide. The tube slide exits the building and re-enters to drop sliders off into the splashdown area. The "exiting" tube slide is an unusual twist that creates an interesting architectural feature from outside the building. But it has a practical purpose as well -- it saves a lot of space.

The leisure pool also has a "lazy river" and a zero-depth spray ground.

The lap pool is six lanes and goes to a depth of 11 1/2 feet. The lanes were also designed to save some space as they're six and a half feet wide, rather than the usual seven and a half feet.

There's a spa in the natatorium area, a dry sauna and a wet steam room. Based on feedback from other facilities, Longmont decided on five family changing rooms, in addition to the regular locker room area.

The gym with its three courts is located adjacent to the pool area, with the locker rooms in between. Above the gym and running along its perimeter is a 1/10-mile track.

Upstairs and next to the track is the fitness area, with about 20 pieces of cardio, free weights and select-drive equipment. Some of this spills out to the corner of the track where more space is available.

The fitness room, located next to the fitness equipment area, hosts about 25 hours per week of fitness classes -- indoor cycling, step, Jazzercise and aerobic classes. The rec center also utilizes personal trainers who give individual classes.

The fitness area looks down on the main lobby and benefits from the light that filters through the glass entrance.

Downstairs, along the hallway that runs past the gym, is a child care area and a climbing wall at the end of the hallway. The climbing wall is about 35 feet high and, rather than flat against the wall, it's a half-cylinder, which has helped make it one of the rec center's most popular attractions.

Back in the lobby, a sitting area is arranged around a big-screen TV, with a plethora of pool and foosball tables next to it.

"Our focus is looking at taking care of families and a making a nice place for people to recreate and work out. We didn't want to infringe on those niches served by local health clubs," says Houtman.

Bryan BuchkoComment