When A Community Strikes Oil

By Cody Blevins and Amanda Kosior

What was once a quiet community in the rolling hills of Western North Dakota, Williston saw its population boom after striking oil in 2008, transforming from a town of 12,500 to a city of more than 40,000 permanent and transient residents. This influx brought with it challenges that turned into opportunities—from massive infrastructure and housing changes to hundreds of new school-age children looking to learn. Williston Parks & Recreation District (WPRD) saw an opportunity of its own: a chance to create an unparalleled recreational facility that would improve the quality of life and give all of Williston’s residents—new and old—a destination that would make them proud to live in this vibrant city. The end result was the Williston Area Recreation Center (2014)—the largest parks and recreation district -owned rec center in the United States, which has paid for itself, socially, healthily, and financially.

“When the oil boom hit, it confirmed what we already knew: We needed a place for our kids and the families that lived here, and that would be moving here, to relax, recreate, and enjoy a high quality of life,” says Darin Krueger, Executive Director of the district.

Responding To Residents
Overseen by Krueger, designed by lead architect JLG Architects and design architect Sink Combs Dethleffs Architects, and built by JE Dunn Construction, the Williston Area Recreation Center, often called the ARC, shines through its details. From the earliest feasibility studies, community input drove the facility. For example, racquetball courts were not included in the original program, and so Williston local David Schmidt rallied a signed petition to add them—and they were incorporated soon after. “We actually lost the first vote without a recreation center in the proposal,” says Krueger. “We went back to the public to find out what they wanted, and we answered with what they said—a rec center! We lost the first vote by 31 votes and won the second by over 800 votes.”

Williston State College was also part of the collaboration, offering to host the ARC on a 5-acre site on its campus and to the east of the city—saving site-acquisition costs, allowing the ARC easy access to part-time student staffers, and assisting the college in its own recruiting efforts and student amenity offerings. “We had great relationships with the city, Williston State College, Williston Public School District #1, and Trinity Christian School, as well as all of our user groups. Together we all worked hard to bring the ARC to our community,” says Krueger. “The project was a team effort and without these entities, along with our Sale Tax Committee, it would have been an uphill battle. The Williston Community has always supported WPRD and our youth. This was no different.”

The Details
The 236,000-square-foot, multi-generational recreation facility provides an aquatic center, full-sized tennis courts, four hardwood basketball/volleyball courts, and community meeting places. Natural light fills the prominent aquatic center, which is complete with an indoor water park with slides, lazy river, zero-entry pool, and surf-ready wave pool. A fully accessible instructional pool with sunken benches to aid in swimming lessons and a 53-meter, Olympic-size competition and diving pool with spectator seating support the community’s athletics. The pool features tiles depicting fish native to North Dakota to tie into the “ARC” theme; 35-million to 95-million-year-old regional fossils are found around the aquatic park. Additionally, the main water-park feature is a water-filled “oil” derrick that pays homage to Williston’s growth. “The Flow Rider is our featured piece at the ARC,” says Krueger. “It was meant to hit the teenager group, but it has been incredibly popular with all ages, from 3 to 90 years old. Everyone loves it! JLG and JE Dunn handled the cost, and they were able to find areas of savings for us to add it into the budget.”

A 16,200-square-foot indoor turf field creates a space ideal for soccer, fast-pitch and baseball practices, batting cages, pick-up volleyball games; it is also a flexible space for kids to simply play. Adjacent to the Fieldhouse are four regulation tennis courts for youth/adult QuickStart programs. A six-lane, 200-meter running track surrounds four hardwood basketball/volleyball courts, which is open to the above fitness track to make up the extensive track and gym area. Recreational areas include a golf simulator, a pitching simulator (later adopted by the Los Angeles Dodgers), racquetball courts, spin room, group-exercise classes, cardio area, and a two-story indoor playground. Youth gathering areas, senior social spaces, and technology and flex spaces function near a teaching kitchen; a child-sitting room features an animal mural coloring wall that incorporates a two-way mirror so parents can observe their children while exercising.

All in all, the ARC allowed the department to add 28 new programs and average over 35 fitness classes a week. Infrastructure was also planned to limit costs when any future expansion is needed.

PRB Code – Middle, Left

Dollars And Cents
With community buy-in firmly in place, Williston Parks & Rec was able to pass a 1-percent sales tax in November 2011 to fund the $70-million facility. Half of the 1 percent went towards funding/bonds, and the other half to district operations, while suspending the parks and rec’s property tax to the community. Two years after the ARC’s opening, the community is still overwhelmed with the success of its funding efforts. “I believe the funding strategy of suspending property tax 100 percent in lieu of the sales tax has been a huge impact on our taxpayers,” said Krueger. “This has given them property tax relief of over $7 million in 2012 to 2014.”

However, there was one major problem: The cost of construction was significant at this time, averaging a 30- to 35-percent increase compared to other areas in the state, due to the dramatic increase in building projects in Western North Dakota. This also meant that subcontractors were scarce, and so completing a project of this scale on a fast-track was difficult. Solutions for these drawbacks were settled by hiring a construction manager early to provide value engineering and insight to keep the project on schedule and budget.

The collaboration with the architect, owner, and construction manager allowed the team to establish priorities and contingencies early on to ensure that the project would meet the budget. As the project developed, the group was informed to make decisions in order to maximize the dollars allotted. The involvement of the construction manager also provided for earlier construction, with footings and foundations being started, while the final design documents were being completed. In the end, the recreation center was delivered slightly under budget and on schedule.

Bragging Rights
Upon the center’s opening, the Bismarck Tribune remarked, “The Williston Area Recreation Center is so enviable that, if you don’t live in Williston, it could make you wish you did.” Today, the ARC is one of the major hot spots in town. Averaging 1,200 visitors a day, the ARC has already hosted its first triathlon, completely within the facility, and has earned a number of awards, including the 2014 Star Fund Project of the Year, 2014 NDRPA Golden Egg Award, and a 2014 American Institute of Architects North Dakota Merit Award. It has also been featured in Fortune magazine and Athletic Business magazine, and on Midco Sports Television and CNN Money.

The success of the facility has already allowed the district to pay down $32.9 million in 44 months, paving way to possibly retiring the bond early. It has also helped Williston Parks & Rec do more around the community, completing $8.2 million in capital projects from January 1, 2012, to December 31, 2015—including the renovation of 13 local parks.

It has also created a new, thriving industry—growing district staff from 13 to more than 50. Previously having helped open a recreation center at The College at Brockport, a campus on the State University of New York, Ashley Krasicki, Recreation Manager, was able to apply her skillset to the ARC—twice the size of her previous facility. “The features we have in this building are just unbelievable,” Krasicki says. Doug Richter, Williston native, searched tirelessly for a career during his senior year at Minot State University. Upon graduation, his best opportunity brought him home, working as assistant facilities supervisor. “These are career-type jobs,” Richter says.

The Williston Area Recreation Center worked collectively to inspire growth and celebrate the people of the city. “Bringing a family to the rec center is like dropping your kids off at Disney,” says Larry Grondahl, a former member of the park board. “It’s a game-changer. It has really changed people’s outlook on moving here.”

Amanda Kosior is the Director of Marketing for JLG Architects in Grand Forks, N.D. Reach her at AKosior@jlgarchitects.com.

Cody Blevins is an intern architect and a member of JLG’s dedicated sports-practice studio. Reach him at cblevins@jlgarchitects.com.