An Uncommon Solution to an Age-Old Challenge:

The City of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (population 50,000) has created a new facility that will be the heart and soul of the community. Sited downtown, the $26.7 million, 114,000 square ft. Natatorium Recreation and Wellness Center is constructed through a unique funding method: a revenue bond repaid with only user fees. This is an uncommon solution to an age-old challenge: building a center with no new taxes.

Historical Background

This story cannot be told without the benefit of discovering our history. The original Natatorium was opened in 1969 as an L-shaped pool, with two locker rooms and a forced-air supported fabric roof. The removable roof allowed the Parks and Recreation Department the ability to “open up” the facility into an outdoor venue. The wear and tear on the roof membrane, as well as the staff was visible in a few years. In 1976, a permanent structural roof was added. The renovations provided a small fitness room and jog/ walk track.

The reaction from the public was terrific, and in 1979, a larger fitness room and new men’s locker room was added. In 1981, six racquetball courts, a lower walk/ jog track, and a women’s locker room was added to accommodate fitness-related programs. In 1989 an aerobics room, a lap pool, two additional locker rooms, a central lobby, Ohio’s first indoor water slide, and a refurbished HVAC system were added. Cuyahoga Falls had the only health and fitness center in Northern Ohio. The City was a model of “cutting edge” parks and recreation facilities.

When you are on top, the tendency is to coast and enjoy the ride. Throughout the 1990’s there were no additions. Staff began to see participation and membership plateau. Revenues decreased, while the maintenance expenses increased. Neighboring cities began to construct community centers with additional features that were not available at the Nat.

A Simple Beginning

By 1998, it was clear that a new leisure pool was required to replace the dive pool and meet demands. Due to the age and deprecation of the swimming facility, the original pool needed replacement. A very important decision was made to measure the community’s needs and demands and survey present users. Two surveys were implemented. The first resulted in 358 responses, and the second resulted in 248 additional responses. The users spoke their minds, and change was requested including Child Care, New Track, Gymnasium, and more programming.

As a result of the survey, the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education and the Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital (now Summa Health Systems) expressed interest in developing a corporate wellness program as part of a facility expansion plan.

Next the City invested in learning what was new in recreation center planning, design and management. In 1999, Cuyahoga Falls staff toured sixteen recently constructed recreation centers in Colorado and Ohio, two “hot spots” for recreation center development. These new facilities offered child care, a new recreation leisure pool, more fitness space and equipment, more aerobics classes, a warm water pool, free weight room, a gymnasium, nutrition programs, professional staff for exercise, and a wellness and corporate wellness program.

The conclusion: The facility must change, and programming must expand.

Recognizing the Community’s Vision

In 1999, the City hired Braun & Steidl Architects to provide a conceptualized plan of potential expansion. The firm interviewed key user groups, reviewed data from the citizen questionnaire, analyzed the existing facility, met with operational staff, defined multi-use spaces and developed a program of required rooms.

Braun & Steidl discovered many difficult existing building issues including multiple floor levels with no way to create openness due to structural systems. There were very difficult circulation patterns within the building, often with narrow congestion points and wet/ dry circulation problems. The additions over the years created three dispersed sets of locker rooms, six total, and yet no family changing rooms. Many technical issues abounded including aged pool, HVAC and electrical systems challenges. Lastly, the location of the downtown site limited the ability to expand.

The program of necessary spaces totaled 119,000 square ft., and it was clear that the quality of the facility must be improved, or the membership plateau would translate into a membership decline. With these constraints and a desire to double the 60,000 square ft., the architect created plans for renovation and addition. Conceptual design construction estimates of $14 to $18 million would solve some of the challenges, but not all. The plans did not include a new jog/ walk track, nor additional class space. Only a single court gym was in the expansion plan. No new locker rooms, multi-purpose room, community room, youth / teen program space, nor meeting rooms were in the expansion plan. The expansion would also create reduced parking capacity.

Is An Entirely New Facility a Better Answer?

Questions were raised from the conceptualization of the community’s vision. Braun & Steidl then issued the “Comparisons of Data” report that addressed the missing program issues not included in the renovation study with the possibility of creating a new stand-alone City Recreation/ Wellness Center. A new facility was considered including a partnership with the hospital for corporate wellness programs.

Research Generates Options for Community’s Vision

Many individual meetings between Richard Pierson, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation and each councilperson to review the project status were key to our success. Also critical were visitations to local and out of state community recreation centers, that revealed what could be built. These centers are beautiful expressions of new community identity. All these centers were bright, airy, spacious, with an abundance of glass that brought the outside site to the indoors. A visit to the new Middleburg Heights Community Center raised the bar for quality.

Open houses were held for patrons at “The Nat,” and a public meeting was held to review original surveys and discuss future potential options for development. At the conclusion, the vision still included all the previously stated rooms, and lastly, the public was in favor of locating the facility in the same central area of downtown.

Making the Right Choices to Achieve the Community’s Vision

In June 2000, City Council approved a contract with Braun & Steidl Architects (Architect of Record), Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture (Design Architect), McHenry & Associates (Mechanical and Electrical Engineers), Thorson Baker Structural Engineers, and Water Technology, Inc. Turner Construction Company, a construction manager, was retained by the City to examine the construction costs of the facility. The existing facility was examined and key issues discovered structural deterioration, ventilation codes and equipment inadequacies, pool filtration systems degradation, and lack of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) compliance. These issues were applicable to all four additions and the original building. The resulting study reflected that the community’s vision would be best met by a new facility. An extensive process was implemented to develop a new program and concept for a stand-alone facility located just south of the existing building. This months-long process included writing a statement of goals, re-writing of an architectural program, development of several conceptual plans, arriving at a single concept, defining specific spaces and components, and the consideration of a “Civic Complex” that tied the new Recreation/ Wellness Center into the context of the City Hall, Municipal Courts Building, and High School campus.

Can we afford it? Advancing the Community’s Vision to Reality

Turner Construction provided a detailed cost estimate of $24 million. A construction timetable was established to complete the design work, break ground in the fall of 2002, open the Center in the summer of 2004 and finish site construction in the fall of 2004. At that time, the revenue/ expense model needed to be validated.

In the spring of 2001, Deloitte & Touche (D&T) performed the economic feasibility study. They approved the process and the findings with the following recommendations for further analysis of the hospital/wellness center agreement, determination of parking capacity, identifications of other revenue sources, and additional market share pricing due diligence. The City acquired a letter of intent from the hospital, commissioned the Graelick parking study and site plan by the architects, identified revenue opportunities with additional partnerships, and conducted market research, which produced outstanding results. Expenses were projected at $3.5 million to $3.7 million per year. This included the bond payment and operating expenses. The market survey showed a range of 15-26% of the population will support the facility financially by their use. Anticipated revenues from those percentages will range from $3.9 million to $6.7 million. The answer was, “Yes, we can afford it!”

What Does All This Mean? It’s really a Question about the Quality of Life in the Community

A survey question asked the public, “Would a new facility improve the quality of life in Cuyahoga Falls?” 6% did not think so; 9% did not know; 85% said yes!

The project’s simple beginning was to replace the dive pool. Options of the community’s vision were researched and generated through council members’ comments, visitations, open houses, and public meetings. The vision remained constant. The community’s vision was achieved by making the right choices. City Council approved hiring architects to provide a second review of existing conditions, identify a new program and pursue a conceptual design. Finally, this study concluded that a new facility would be the best answer. Advancing the Community’s Vision to Reality came by the construction manager providing a formal estimate of costs, and Deloitte & Touche challenging the project with four recommendations:

1. Formalize the hospital agreement; 2. Determine if adequate parking is feasible; 3. Identify other revenue opportunities and; 4. Perform market share pricing due diligence.

In response, the Parks and Recreation Department:

1. Secured an agreement with the hospital;

2. Designed adequate parking

3. Increased revenue opportunities with partnerships, rental rooms, and corporate wellness agreements, and

4. Established the market share and pricing by contracting for a professional random survey of the market area.

The final important step was to take the Community’s Vision from Reality to Success. In January 2002, Council had the opportunity to respond to citizens who were supporting a new Community Recreation and Wellness Center. It was given the challenge to take the community’s vision from reality to success and lead Cuyahoga Falls into the next 50 years of quality leisure services. City Council responded with a unanimous (11-0) approval to build the New Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium Recreation/ Wellness Center. The Opening of the Center was scheduled for September 18, 2004.

The City of Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium Recreation and Wellness Center represents the cutting edge, not only in its program opportunities and high quality facilities, but in the remarkable fact that the City was able to develop a $26.7 million, state-of-the-art recreation center that will be the heart and soul of downtown Cuyahoga Falls without raising the taxes of its constituents. Finally, a response to an age-old challenge. Uncommon indeed!

Submitted by: Richard Pierson , CPRP is the retired Cuyahoga Falls Superintendent of Parks and Recreation and Steve Blackburn , AIA, NCARB is a Principal and Vice President of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture Denver, Colorado and can be reached at (303) 455-1366 or

Bryan BuchkoComment