Towns' latest public service: megagyms

Set high on a hill here, looking like a latter-day castle, the RiverChase Family Recreation Center has square turrets and a soaring three-story green glass wall that connects indoor and outdoor pools.

Inside, director Mary Jo Dessieux points with pride to two basketball courts, enough exercise bikes to stage a stationary Tour de France, meeting and game rooms, day care, an indoor track, a dance studio, and water slides.

While town rec centers have existed for decades, these new complexes bear little resemblance to their cinder-block predecessors. Light, airy, and family-oriented, these outsized athletic facilities are sprouting nationwide, from the suburbs of Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago to Colorado, where 18 have opened in the past five years.

Public, not private, and open to communities rather than just fitness cliques, they cater to America's still-growing workout ethic from teens to seniors. Beyond size and utility, for cities bulging with cash after a decade of economic growth, the huge recplexes have also become civic status symbols, the equivalent of a family SUV.

"Residents are demanding these large centers, and they become the focal point of a community," says Barb Wisney, executive director of the Colorado Parks and Recreation Association. "Quality of life and active recreation are increasingly important to people - and they want a family experience, too."

They also, apparently, want size.: RiverChase is 71,000 sq. feet; a recreation center in Jefferson County, near Denver, that will open soon will be a whopping 168,500 sq. feet.

For the past three years, a Colorado program that trains out-of-state officials on the design, construction, and operation of such centers has been filled to its 125-seat capacity. According to a National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) survey, proposed spending on local recreation projects nationwide increased from $27.5 billion in 1995 to $55 billion in 2000.

Ms. Dessieux doesn't dispute the idea that RiverChase, which opened last summer, was designed - in part - to enhance the city's image in the region. For years, Fenton had a reputation as a rough river town. There were seedy clubs along the Meramec river that have since been washed away by floods.

"We definitely wanted this to be a showcase. People in the area still have a lingering image of Fenton that's negative. This facility is dispelling that," she says.

But keeping up with "Jonesville" can be pricey. Fenton has a population of 4,000 and RiverChase cost a cool $15 million. In an age when some of the biggest cities in the country have balked at building new professional sports stadiums in the $200 million range, RiverChase, in per capita figures, would cost a city of 1 million $3.75 billion.

Politics are never far from an equation involving that kind of money. Indeed, observers say that as issues such as crime and the economy have sunk on the average suburbanite's list of primary concerns, previously marginal issues such as recreational opportunities have suddenly shot to the fore. In so doing, fitness and recreation have been transformed from mere lifestyle considerations into a political issue for local officials.

Congress passed a bill in May called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act that would provide billions of dollars both for federal lands and local parks, recreation and conservation. President Clinton has come out in favor of the legislation.

"This thing went from a zero on his screen about three years ago to something I don't think he'll let Congress go home without finishing," says Barry Tindall, director of public policy at NRPA. "And that's thanks to the [US Conference of] mayors. They just hounded him. And they didn't do it because the act will buy a lot of federal park land - they did it because it will help develop a lot of rec complexes and the like in their towns. They want to be responsive to what the public is demanding."

While life, liberty, and the pursuit of a flat stomach have become all but equal constitutional rights, taxpayers have proven somewhat fickle when it comes to paying for tummy trimming. A number of towns have voted down bond issues or tax increases to fund mega recreation centers.

But where there is voter will, politicians usually find a revenue way. In Canton Township, Michigan, officials used landfill tipping fees to build a recreation center. Here in Fenton, a half cent increase in the sales tax paid for RiverChase. And in Colorado, municipalities can draw from state lottery revenue.

Financing mega recreation centers is only one concern. More problematic is what some critics see as government competing with the private sector. What, they ask, happens to private clubs or existing not-for-profits that are attempting to provide the same services?

Dessieux is sensitive to the concern and says there is no YMCA in Fenton, and the siting of RiverChase took into consideration the location of local private health and recreation clubs. For instance, some residents wanted RiverChase to include an ice rink, but the idea was nixed because there is a private rink down the road.

"The bottom line is, this place fills a need," says Dessieux. "The community wanted it, and so far it's been very successful."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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