Putting The Community First

“I was crazy one day,” says Administrator Mike Pollocoff of the Village of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., “and I had this idea for a recreation center that could offer this community something it needed.” “Crazy” seems to have spawned as many good ideas and stories as “once upon a time,” as Pleasant Prairie residents soon discovered. Pollocoff’s vision became the community’s LakeView RecPlex, a state-of-the-art recreational facility and new community focal point.

LakeView RecPlex is a 260,000-square-foot facility that features a family-focused aquatic center, field house, suspended running track, fitness center and two ice rinks. The facility functions not only as a recreation center, but also as a gathering place for its growing, diverse populations. It has taken on a regional status, hosting reputable triathlons and martial arts events. And amazingly, the facility is fully self-supported, providing the community with a healthy outlet while not requiring any taxpayer dollars.

A Colorado Example For A Wisconsin Town

Pollocoff grew up in Colorado, where community recreational facilities are a way of life and nearly a citizen’s right. Each Colorado community seeks to create a facility better than the next, and municipalities will levy a half-cent sales tax to support them.

In his role in Pleasant Prairie, Pollocoff saw a need for a recreational outlet. In Wisconsin, parks are municipality- and sometimes county-run entities, but recreation is often left to nonprofits or the private sector, with few offerings and often lagging support. Pleasant Prairie is the first Wisconsin community across the Illinois border, with a diverse and growing population of 20,000. The area is in close proximity to Chicago and has suffered some growing pains, but its demographics were right for a family-oriented and fitness-focused recreational facility. Pollocoff knew seeking taxpayer support might spell the end of his idea, so he sought creative ways of bringing it to life.

The Team Behind The Idea

Pollocoff worked to secure some land surrounded by Prairie Springs Park and the spring-fed Lake Andrea, considered the village cornerstone. A local developer, WisPark, recognized the benefit in bringing an amenity like a recreational facility to the area, and donated the first $4 million to the project. Pollocoff and his growing team of supporters were able to secure through revenue bonds an additional $8 million for the facility, and they geared up for the subsequent design and construction phases.

Pollocoff and other village officials had long been familiar with the work of Partners in Design Architects, a community-minded architectural firm in Kenosha, Wis., and northern Illinois. He approached Tom O’Connell, a principal of the firm who had designed several local industrial buildings. He was asked to create a basic, “large box” design as an economical way of building the large facility. O’Connell considered the request and came up with a simple, cost-effective building type of 130,000 square feet with high-impact modifications.

Recreation On A “Fitness” Budget

Knowing RecPlex would be the showcase recreational facility for Pleasant Prairie, Partners in Design added elements to enhance natural light and visibility, as well as options to maximize space. The design cut out the corners of the “large box” and instead enclosed them in glass. It also featured one large structure to house the aquatic center and a second structure for the field house, connected by an all-glass core and mezzanine, which housed the fitness center. Leaving the ceilings exposed with an acoustical roof deck saved considerable cost per square foot.

The aquatic center features zero-depth entry into a leisure pool with a current channel, geysers, small lap lanes and an adjacent whirlpool for adults. Large murals depicting aquatic themes adorn the pool walls. To meet the tight budget, the artist agreed to first paint small-scale murals, which were then enlarged and imprinted on a wallpaper application.

“Our real worry initially,” says Pollocoff, “was that the 130,000-square-foot facility would be way too big, but we picked up 8,000 members in our first year.” Just three years after the facility’s opening, the village called the architect back to evaluate an expansion to the existing RecPlex and the addition of IcePlex--two NHL-sized sheets of ice with support and spectator facilities.

“The addition of IcePlex was an opportunity to look at how RecPlex could change and grow with its membership,” says O’Connell. The former 8,000-square-foot fitness center was replaced by an 18,000-square-foot center featuring floor-to-ceiling glass with views of Lake Andrea, party rooms and larger staff and childcare areas. The old fitness center was remodeled into wellness spaces for massage and dedicated studios for spinning classes, martial arts and yoga.

A Growing Concept

The community response to the facilities proves Pollocoff’s vision and approach were both necessary and realistic. Forty percent of local households have a membership to the facility, and nearly 14,000 of the area’s population are members. With the facility designed to be affordable, members pay an annual fee of around $650.

“When you consider the cumulative cost of other recreational opportunities--winter skiing, water park entrance fees and ball league fees--the fee proves its value,” Pollocoff says.

The village is still looking at ways to expand, and is considering a 50-meter pool with deeper water and other ways to anticipate members’ evolving interests. Pollocoff isn’t surprised by the facility’s success, but is pleased that after seven years, RecPlex and IcePlex have yet to seek taxpayer support.

Simple Advice For Other Communities

O’Connell says that other Wisconsin communities have shown interest in building similar community recreational facilities, but acknowledges that they have yet to get projects off the ground.

Pollocoff offers advice to communities hoping to create the same type of environment with a community focus. He notes that rural areas have a higher likelihood of creating a self-supported facility, as they typically do not have a corporate presence from competing fitness centers.

Another piece of advice is that community needs assessments and surveys are an invaluable way to plan upfront. Not only will the feedback inform the process, but will start to generate buy-in and interest, which provides momentum.

Pollocoff also offers, “Get an architect who listens.” He acknowledges that the team behind RecPlex was willing to understand the budget and listen to the community needs, resulting in a space that is unique and reflective of its users, instead of an off-the-shelf type of design.