Winds Of Change
It's unusual for any facility to sell 12,600 annual passes. It's even more unusual when the community that bought those 12,600 passes numbers around 20,000.
More than half of the residents of West Deptford, N.J., purchased season passes to the city's recreational gem (complete with gyms), RiverWinds. It's a one-of-a-kind facility, at least in this region, that was extremely well-promoted. Fortunately -- for both the city's administrators and residents -- RiverWinds would meet and exceed the hype.
"I've been here 18 years, and we've been researching and trying to figure out a way to afford, construct and operate a community center. We met with Water Technology and Barker Rinker Seacat Architects and visited eight super centers in the Denver area and basically got religion," laughs Gerald White, West Deptford's city administrator.
"The whole vibrancy and family focus of it sold us. We're a typical New Jersey community where time is very precious, and we were looking to build a center that would cater to the needs of modern, two-income families. We're also a typical New Jersey suburb in that there is no town center. We hoped this would become the center of the community, and it has."
The 111,000 square foot, multi-purpose community center includes two gyms, a fitness deck, a 1/7-mile indoor walking and running track, a climbing wall, a multi-purpose room, an arts and crafts room, a child care area, a teen center with vending and games and a senior center.
The center's focal point is the aquatics facility, which features two pools -- a 25-yard New Jersey high-school spec competition pool and a leisure pool with a zero-depth sprayground, two-story indoor slide, current channel, a whirlpool and three lanes of lap swim.
"If a community can afford some version of this it's an investment that will pay off in healthier lives and an overall livable community," says White. "It has a real therapeutic value. Some of the aquatics classes are particularly focused for seniors with joint problems.
"People with disabilities love this pool. It has one water wheelchair and a lift. The zero depth entry is something that even if you have a disability you can easily get into the pool. One of the best aerobic workouts in the building is to get into the current channel and walk against the current."
White emphasizes the importance of building a multi-use, multi-generational facility, particularly since -- like most of America -- the proportion of senior residents will continue to grow.
White adds that the community center helps bring in vital private sector development to the area. He mentions a conference center and planned waterfront mixed use development around the center and along the Delaware River.
"An important piece of the ability to fund the center and sustain it going forward is the economic development that spins off from it. We're entering into leases, sales and long-term tax agreements that provide a very defined revenue stream," says White. "Even independent of the development, it's a community asset that raises overall values and makes the community more livable."
From an operations standpoint, multi-generational use demands that staff be prepared for the various challenges, behaviors and usage patterns each generation brings with it.
"We have a broader population with younger kids and older people, so you have to look out for everything. The guards have to be trained in the differences between watching the toddlers in the sprayground, the teenagers on the slide and the seniors in the current channel for instance," says Cristin Veit, assistant director in charge of aquatics and general programming at RiverWinds.
Veit adds that being able to adapt to the realities of usage patterns is an element that needs to be considered by management. For instance, Veit says they had planned to limit how many people could use the current channel at one time, but found the rule wasn't necessary, as it was not only large enough but was self-regulating.
Perhaps the greatest challenge upon opening was staffing. Joseph DeSimine, RiverWinds community center director, says it's a good idea to bring key staff in at least six months before opening. "Even the part-time staff should be brought in to do some dry runs," he says.
"Our usage the first three months was unparalleled to anything I had ever seen, with 2,000 to 3,000 users per day. After that calmed down, then we got into the groove of what we needed to do to make sure we staffed correctly for the demand," recalls DeSimine. "For six weeks our managers worked a minimum of 12 hours a day just trying to cover themselves for the rush of the new members."
DeSimine adds that it's hard to get all of the documentation and planning in place quickly and so close to the opening deadline.
"Once you open the doors you're so focused on tackling one hurdle after another that comes up within operations that those things tend to get pushed aside," says DeSimine.
Items like crowd control and lines, resident verification (the center is only open to residents for the time being), program costs and room rental policies need time to be hashed out and come together as mutually-agreed-upon policy.
"When a facility is in the news as much as our facility was it's important to get the pre-sales and touring in ahead of your opening date, preferably six months out from opening. We were swamped the first day. We had five lines with hour waits in each line just to buy a pass. It was a great problem to have, but certainly some people got a little upset at the wait," says DeSimine.
DeSimine has implemented an electronic funds transfer system where people can make automatic ongoing payments, eliminating the need to sign up 11,000 people at the front desk each year. He says about 33 percent have been converted to this type of membership, which will help alleviate the pressure on the front desk come March, when most of the memberships expire.
DeSimine says the city had a great idea to have open houses for all the local schools, with each night dedicated to a different school.
"Once word got out that the facility was open, and the local newspaper misquoted the times the facility would be open for pre-opening tours, all hell broke out. The week before opening we were constantly turning people away. If we had a little more cooperation from the press, we might've been able to pull that plan off a little bit better," says DeSimine.
"It was a good plan, but it got lost when the newspaper printed that the center would be open all day. We were open from 6-10 p.m. for the schools, which got misconstrued on a front-page story, and of course the retraction's on page 10 or so."
White and the city's officials learned some important lessons from their tour of Denver-area super centers, foremost of which was to tour other facilities.
The tour allowed them to talk to operators, patrons and community leaders about their facilities -- what they liked and didn't like, and what they had learned over the course of their operations.
"We really wanted to get our arms around what it would cost to operate. You can easily quantify the costs to build, but the operational costs and benefits of the facility cannot always be quantified," says White. "The best question we asked everywhere we went was, 'If you could do it over again what would you do differently?'"
White says the number one response was to up-size the family locker rooms, which he says are very important to families with young children and people with disabilities.
Other items on the list of things they found that some of the Denver-area centers would do differently in hindsight were a larger community gathering space in the front atrium, and increased gymnasium and fitness space. As White says, "When you have an active boys' and girls' recreation program, the day when one gym would meet those needs is done, particularly when we're seeing explosive growth in girls' recreation programs."