Feature Article - July 2010
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Try That on for Size

Small Communities Take On Big Recreation Amenities

By Jessica Royer Ocken


ust because your community is on the smaller side doesn't mean you should skimp on providing sports, fitness and recreation options. A squishy soccer field and cramped closet filled with dusty treadmills isn't going to cut it much.

Take Connecticut, for example. Fitness has been part of the fabric of this state—which includes a series of small towns—for years, explained Tony Panza, AIA LEED AP, an architect with James G. Rogers Architects in South Norwalk, Conn.

"From babies learning to swim to seniors having a walking track, everyone goes [to the Y]," Panza said. And this means YMCAs in this area offer state-of-the-art options like "yoga rooms and spin rooms and full-on fitness centers that would compete with sports clubs in Los Angeles," he said, adding that local country clubs and school districts are following much the same pattern.

And these days this scenario is true not only in New England, but across the country.

"There's an increased awareness of fitness in our society," Panza said.

This awareness makes consumers savvy (as well as conscious of their need to exercise), so they're looking for something fun and fabulous.

But, if that doesn't quite describe your current offerings, don't panic. Peruse these tips from the pros who are making it happen in their own smaller communities, and you'll soon be on your way to success.

Consider Your Community

When making a change, not just any change will do. You want to make the right change: the one your current and potential clientele will step right up to experience.

This might mean thinking beyond city limits.

Although the SoNo Field House in South Norwalk, Conn., is called the SoNo Field House (as in South Norwalk), "a facility of that size is not just for a village or a town that it's in," explained Panza, who was lead architect on the project. "Generally speaking, it's for an area that reaches out about a 30-minute drive."

So, the lesson to take away here is to survey the scene on the outskirts of your own town, or even the next town over. What fitness amenities are available (or not available) there? Those needs might be a useful consideration as you decide what to add, create or renovate.

But taking a broad view is no excuse for neglecting your core constituents. The SoNo Field House, which is a privately owned, for-profit facility, was built largely for lacrosse, which is hot in New England, although not currently all the rage in South Norwalk, specifically, because there wasn't a place to play until the Field House arrived in 2009. So, to connect with the local community and encourage participation, SoNo Field House offers free, open lacrosse instruction each day for an hour in the afternoon to those who live within a certain distance of the facility.

Factors such as the demographics of your city or town should have an influence on your decision-making. Are you in a more urban or suburban area? Do your clients need children's activities or senior-friendly facilities—or both?

If your community is fairly affluent, you might find yourself in a very competitive health and fitness market, noted Jim Rogers, owner of James G. Rogers Architects, based in South Norwalk, Conn.

Whether it's a parks and recreation program, a YMCA or a community center, in upscale communities, you "have to offer pretty up-to-date, attractive facilities with high-quality equipment, and enough of it," said Rogers, whose clients include an assortment of YMCAs in high-end Connecticut communities. "They tend to get very high volumes of use during small periods of the day. But, they have to compete, or else people won't come. There are too many other options available."

As always, probably the best way to determine what will go over big in your community is to ask its members.

In putting together a master plan for Forney Community Park, for example, the parks department in Forney, Texas, conducted mail and telephone surveys and held several town meetings.

"We solicited input from the people of Forney," said Richard Curry, director of parks and recreation. "The priorities on that list were ultimately what built the community park."

But they considered the larger area as well.

"There was an effort to identify communities around us and what they had," he said. "We knew if we built the park the way we intended [it], it would automatically become a regional park. There would be nothing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that would match it."