"Community Houses" Offer a Hybrid of Recreation Centers and Community Centers

It's tempting, when recounting the struggle for world domination between the for-profits and nonprofits, to place every type of recreation-oriented business into two very neat boxes - health club and YMCA, for example. Truth be told, though, quite a few facilities - especially given the recent trend toward joint venturing - defy easy classification.

Some, even, are their own distinct type and have resisted being pigeonholed for two generations or more. An example is the community house, a sort of hybrid community center/ municipal rec center that in at least two U.S. communities (both suburbs of Chicago) is in competition with all recreational businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit.

Make no mistake, the Winnetka (Ill.) Community House is a nonprofit recreation center, and it has been since it was established in 1911. Built by the Winnetka Congregational Church, the structure - which includes a multipurpose gymnasium, a daycare facility and a kitchen - was deeded to the town in the 1940s. It was an agreement quaint enough to leave a cynic misty-eyed: The church gave away its building with the stipulation that once a year it could hold its annual rummage sale there. The building's new owners, a 24-person board of governors, knew a good deal when they saw it, and so the facility has been central to the town's recreational life ever since.

Winnetka also has a park district charged with meeting the community's recreational needs in a market that also boasts five for-profit clubs, but Jeff Wahl, the community house's athletic supervisor, downplays the competitive angle.

"We compete, if you want to call it that, with the park district," Wahl says. "But we've kind of come to an agreement: They run certain age groups and we run certain age groups. So while we may run the same kinds of programs, we don't really compete. In some programs, we can't - Wilmette, for example, has one of the greatest gymnastics programs around, so ours is basically a feeder program for Wilmette. It's sort of a symbiotic relationship, not a competition thing."

And the for-profits? "A lot of them work for us," Wahl says. "One private operator in town rents space from us and runs aerobics programs here."

Twenty miles to the southwest, where the Hinsdale Community House's slogan is "Your Place to Gather and Grow," a large amount of growth has just taken place. A $9 million expansion to the community house that was completed in April has added (among other facilities) a field house with a suspended track.

Hinsdale's facility began as a private men's club that was donated to the community and incorporated in 1941. Prior to this year, its basketball programs took place in what was actually an auditorium, although the community house runs many leagues using the Hinsdale School District's gyms - as does the village's parks and recreation commission. In most respects, though, the community house and commission's programs split on an indoor-outdoor basis, according to Theresa Forthofer, the community house's executive director. Asked if the new field house gives the community house a competitive edge, Forthofer remains silent.

"Ahhh…that's a good question," she says after a time. "I think we try very hard not to be in competition with them. We try to not duplicate their efforts, and we would hope that they do the same."

If Forthofer sounds a little cagey, well - it comes with the territory. "I'd say occasionally we get some flak," she concedes. "But the village has been very supportive of the project. We do all these other services for seniors, programs that wouldn't exist if we didn't provide them, and we can only pay for those services by having a recreation component as well. We're trying not to step on people's toes."

Wahl notes that while his community house gets a portion of its funding from the United Way, most of its revenues are derived from facility programs and special events. That explains the Winnetka Community House's current $25 million campaign that would (pending zoning approval) expand the fitness center, gymnasium, multipurpose rooms, youth enrichment center, banquet facilities, storage and office space. What does the town think of such an audacious plan? They'll probably give the non-taxpayer-supported venture a big thumb's up: Winnetkans defeated not one, but two park-district referenda in April (for a recreation center and an indoor and outdoor pool). Says Wahl, "We're really trying to work together with the park district, because the public obviously doesn't need too much of a good thing."