A "Nifty" Reuse

The task came directly from the city manager: find the best reuse for the entire second floor (5,400 square feet) of a 30-year-old community center in Lakewood, and do it in the midst of California’s fragile fiscal climate. And, accomplish this without disrupting ongoing operations in the rest of the building.

Built in the 1970s, the Burns Community Center was opened to provide preventive health care, nutrition, educational programs and counseling services, and was a site for many human service agencies. Over the years, as funding decreased, the facility morphed its mission to meet the changing needs of the community.

The 13,000-square-foot building ultimately became the home to Lakewood Meals on Wheels, a senior nutrition congregate meal program and a childcare center, which still operate on the building’s first floor. The second floor became the offices of the city’s transportation program, one non-profit tenant/partner and some city staff offices that were squeezed out of city hall’s tightening space.

Changes In Latitude

In 2005, the city made arrangements to have the entire second story of the community center vacated to temporarily house 100 county employees during a two-year construction project at the Lakewood sheriff station. The former tenants of the second floor were relocated to other sites in the city for the duration of the project. As the grand opening of the sheriff station neared, the city realized it had a unique opportunity to find a better use for the space to benefit residents and fill a gap in the services offered in the community.

Dreaming Big

My assignment from the city manager encouraged me to think outside the box, which gave my staff and me the ability to dream big. We worked intermittently for over a year to research the best fit to serve the community, including interviewing residents, touring other public, private and non-profit facilities throughout Southern California, conducting Internet research to determine what was being done in other parts of the state and country and networking with professional colleagues.

One thing we found--and what we already suspected--was that there was a growing gap in services for a portion of the senior population. The fast-growing baby boomer segment (age 50 and older) wanted personalized programs and services outside traditional senior programs. Providing this individualized programming would be a challenge for our small contract city to meet.

Mirroring national and state statistics, Lakewood’s 2012 census projects over 27 percent (22,486) of the residents in Lakewood will be between the ages of 50 and 74. Through research, we discovered a new program that successfully fit the objectives of the search, and also promised to provide revenue.

Nifty After Fifty

The program is Nifty after Fifty, a membership-based wellness center for adults age 50 and older that was started in 2004. The goal is to help older adults be healthy and well. Since that also was in sync with our mission, we visited the corporate office in Garden Grove in Orange County (a short distance from Lakewood).

We were impressed with that operation, which includes customized fitness programs, physical therapy, group exercise, a social program, spa services, balance classes and programs for improving the mind and one’s driving skills. The monthly memberships offer variety without a long-term contract. Since the services are all based by appointment, this allows for more personalized attention. The highly trained staff and state-of-the-art equipment provide the specialized type of service that the city is unable to provide in a cost-efficient manner.

Contracting As A Solution

One of the obstacles we faced was bringing a for-profit business to a government facility that had previously housed only non-profit organizations, recreation programs and social services. Although the proposed five-year agreement was a tenant/landlord arrangement, there was some hesitation to enter into an agreement with a for-profit business.

The proposal was for Nifty after Fifty to lease the square footage at the community center at a competitive rate. In turn, residents would receive a discount from any monthly membership package. The Recreation and Community Services Department saw this as a win/win option for the city and its residents. Partnering for these services with a successful business was a good solution to meet residents’ needs without the city’s incurring the startup costs. And by receiving monthly rent, the city would have an added revenue source.

Other Challenges

Since the facility is located at the southern end of one of Lakewood’s largest parks, zoning and occupancy codes needed to be addressed. The city negotiated with Nifty after Fifty to provide an ADA-accessible unisex restroom, and to change some doorways to meet current building codes. The tenant’s own improvements began immediately, and the space was transformed into an attractive health club setting.

Similar Mission Creates A Winning Future

In July 2008, just two months after approval by city council, Nifty after Fifty began operation. By pre-selling memberships, the program opened with over 80 members. Since that time, membership has expanded.

The city has assisted Nifty after Fifty with marketing efforts in several ways, such as distributing flyers and brochures at city facilities and allowing a temporary banner to be hung. Foot traffic in the building has increased, and so has attendance at other programs offered at the Burns Center.

The city looks forward to continuing a positive working partnership throughout the five-year term of the agreement, and plans to collaborate with Nifty after Fifty by offering sponsorship and volunteer opportunities for other programs. Helping older adults to be healthy and age well is the goal of Nifty after Fifty--and the city.

Allison Brammer is a Community Services Manager with the City of Lakewood's Recreation and Community Services Dept. She has her MPA from Cal State Univ., Long Beach and has been working in the non-profit and public sectors for over 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at abrammer@lakewoodcity.org.