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Copyright 2013 Star Tribune
All Rights Reserved

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
August 30, 2013 Friday
NEWS; Pg. 1B
1131 words

Thanks to changing demographics, city-run fitness centers are drawing more people. Some even rival private gyms.

From weightlifting to Zumba, more Minnetonka residents are taking their workouts to one central place: the city's fitness center.

Attendance at the city-owned Williston Fitness Center has skyrocketed since it underwent a $4.5 million renovation in 2010. This year, membership is expected to peak at 8,400; users will top 300,000. For the first time, the city has closed nonresident memberships.

"It's tough to keep up with demand," Minnetonka Recreation Director Dave Johnson said. "It's something our community really needs."

More metro suburbs are getting into the fitness fad, rivaling private health clubs in amenities with everything from rock climbing to water parks. Eden Prairie and Shoreview are both considering multimillion-dollar additions to their heavily used centers. And St. Louis Park is weighing building a new community center.

"It used to be, you only had aerobics," said Bill Beckner, a senior researcher with the National Recreation and Park Association. "Now you have to be a full-service entity in order to bring in enough revenue to make it worthwhile."

However, not all cities can afford such high-end facilities or get taxpayers to foot the bill. And most cities that do so barely break even, because they charge lower fees than many private health clubs and still have free public areas.

But, Beckner said, increased fitness offerings are something residents expect from cities, and they can help make a city more attractive.

"They build them, and people come," he said.

Benefit vs. cost

That's exactly why cities like Shoreview have ramped up their community centers to have more of a fitness focus.

Its community center opened more than 20 years ago to attract young families and create a town

center hosting events like a farmers market. But since then, it has undergone renovations and expansions to include a water park, a full-service fitness center and an indoor playground. As a result, the number of memberships has tripled.

"We're comparable to a high-end fitness center," said Shoreview Community Center General Manager Michelle Majkozak. "We really have evolved ... every year we try to add something new."

As the center nears capacity with 6,500 memberships, the city is planning a $1.1 million expansion in 2015.

Chaska was an area pioneer in full-service community centers, building its center for about $9 million in 1990. It includes swimming pools, ice rinks, a track, gyms, a day care, a senior center, an art gallery and a 250-seat theater.

Chaska City Manager Matt Podhradsky considers his city's center a primary marketing tool. About 25 percent of members are nonresidents, and use is increasing at a steady 3 percent a year.

"It creates a place where people can gather and call home," Podhradsky said. "Nothing stands out more to me than a community center as a special place to draw people."

Running the center will cost the city about $3.3 million this year. Unlike most city-owned centers, the Chaska center is self-supporting. Debt service on improvements is funded through transfers from the city's municipal electric utility.

Podhradsky said the center has room to expand, but the emphasis now is on preserving what it has. "When we built it, from Chaska's perspective, it went back to being the best small town in Minnesota," he said. "We didn't want to be a bedroom community; we wanted to live and work here and have this be a place where we could gather together."

St. Louis Park also likes the idea of a central gathering spot and is investigating the possibility of a new community center. Surveys show 70 percent of residents are interested in features like a pool, gym, track and fitness studios that would be part of a center.

But cost estimates make city officials cautious.

"The question is, is it really worth it, to spend $40 or $50 million?" said St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs. "It would be a great amenity, but ... it's a question of benefit vs. cost."

Unfair competition?

For cities, the added amenities aren't big moneymakers.

In Eagan, for instance, the community center is celebrating its 10th year this month but is still halfway through payments on its center. In Minnetonka, 90 percent of the $2.3 million in annual operating costs for the Williston Fitness Center is covered by the center's revenue. The city also has used center revenue and a community investment fund to fund renovations and to buy the fitness facility from a private health club in 1995 for $600,000, a fraction of the $1.6 million selling cost.

But in Shakopee, it hasn't been that simple.

Despite rival Chaska's large center, Shakopee residents have rejected four consecutive referendums to expand and renovate their 18-year-old community center, which City Administrator Mark McNeill said is "pretty basic" and has an overcrowded fitness center.

Other cities save money by partnering with private companies. Maple Grove connects its community center to Life Time Fitness so residents can work out there and then use the community center's pool or children's play area.

Life Time Fitness has 24 clubs in the metro area, but it welcomes the city-run fitness facilities.

"There always seems to be a niche to be filled," spokeswoman Natalie Bushaw said, adding that Life Time has more premium amenities such as spas and cafes. "There's a demographic Life Time hits. For people looking for an alternative, I think a community center is a good thing."

That wasn't the case in Arizona, where a private gym complained to a local conservative think tank about a city's recreation center unfairly competing with them. The think tank threatened to sue but dropped it earlier this year.

Growing demand

The demand for city fitness facilities is only likely to grow.

In Eden Prairie, young families and the growing number of seniors who want to stay active are packing the community center's 30-year-old lap pool, creating a backlog of swimming requests. As a result, this fall the city will release designs for a $16.5 million project that would expand the fitness center and replace the lap pool with two new pools.

"Our senior population at the community center has exploded," Eden Prairie Parks and Recreation Director Jay Lotthammer said. "And that's where the demographics in Minnesota are headed."

The center doubled in size after voters approved a $13 million referendum in 2005. Now, it has a weight room, fitness center with 150 classes a week and three sheets of ice. Memberships, in turn, have jumped nearly five times since 2007.

"It's packed," Lotthammer said of waiting lines for Pilates and yoga classes. "It's really become a gathering place for the entire community." 612-673-4141 · 612-673-7380


membership expected at Williston

Fitness Center in Minnetonka


membership capacity at Shorwview COmmunity Center

August 30, 2013

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