Bridging Generation Gaps

The Bridge in Joplin, Mo.

By Jim Ladesich

ith enough vision and commitment, a farsighted concept can often become a successful recreational resource. A case in point is a facility for teenagers known as The Bridge in Joplin, Mo. The facility has already earned a design and construction award and is attracting throngs of teenagers searching for a safe, well-managed place to enjoy their generation's own genres of sports, music and socializing.

While serving as a youth minister with a local church in 1999, Dan Mitchell wanted a way to reach teenagers who were not already attending church services. Following six months of planning, he earned the support of his congregation, the Christ's Church of Oronogo, and several other area ministries to rent a vacant supermarket to use as an outreach venue. The focus was on activities that would attract teenagers.

That experiment was attracting 550 teens a week when it was replaced recently with a much grander "youth recreation mall" north of Joplin that is drawing teenagers from a 250-mile radius. A larger consortium of churches has since joined the original sponsors and broadened the center's community support. Mitchell expects this new-generation facility to draw at least 5,000 teens a week during summer months.

The 64,000-square-foot youth center provides an affordable place where teens can gather to enjoy activities specifically in tune with their interests. Young people can be referred to a local church or simply delve into religious and other issues, but the focus is clearly on having fun. The three-building complex has an indoor skateboard and BMX bike-ramp facility, a concert venue, an indoor sports facility with a caged basketball and volleyball court, a 45-foot rock-climbing gym, pool tables, a computer café, a videogame arcade, and concessions and refreshment areas. Space on the upper level of one building has been subdivided into five classrooms and office areas for a school for at-risk youth referred from 10 area school districts.

The new complex, which entered service in March 2006, has enough interior height to accommodate soaring jumps off the skateboard ramps, the challenging climbing wall and spaces designed for an eclectic mix of youth activities. The mission, however, remains the same.

"We're trying to accomplish several things," Mitchell said. "The name itself describes the primary mission—that is to help kids transition between childhood and adulthood. It's a dangerous time for them and it should be our goal as a society to help them test their wings.

"We've done something great here if all we did was provide a safe, 'cool' environment," he added. "But we also add a faith component to the equation, which instills power and hope that aren't necessarily present elsewhere for teens. We don't have sermons here, but our staff are trained in Christian ministry that enables them to discuss and explore God with teens during casual conversations."

Build it, and they will come

Mitchell recalls coming up with the concept for the center while mowing his lawn. He described how in youth ministry, it is difficult to come into contact with kids who aren't already attending church. He concluded that he had to create a place where they would want to gather. That led to the prototype facility in the former supermarket, which set the stage for greater things to follow.

Mitchell sought input from both adults and teens to arrive at the best mix of activities for the center. Staffing and security issues were carefully planned for both the infrastructure and adult supervision. The ministerial mission helped him recruit the needed adults while preserving the operational cash flow.

Mitchell developed a cadre of volunteers—150 showed up to work at the first facility. The volunteers rolled out in even greater numbers for the four-day grand opening of the new facility. The Bridge drew 7,000 to 10,000 visitors who were assisted by 371 volunteers.

These volunteers still enable the facility to operate with 40 paid staff, only eight of them on the full-time payroll. Those who are formally employed as well as the volunteers are carefully screened and trained in the mission of The Bridge and contemporary youth culture.

In addition to the favorable youth-to-adult ratio, a system of 60 digital surveillance cameras enhances security. Off-duty, plain-clothes law-enforcement officers are brought in if crowd sizes are expected to exceed a certain level during concerts or other special events.

Smart funding, smart construction

The new three-building facility overcomes the physical constraints of its predecessor and appeals to an even broader market. An equally visionary philanthropist provided the foundation on which to build it.

The $5.1 million project became reality when John Hammons, a highly successful hotelier and commercial property developer, donated 60 acres of strategically located property accessible from Interstate 44. This tract was then leveraged as the collateral needed to arrange financing for the construction and offers room to eventually develop outdoor amenities, as well. An advanced material solution presented the most cost-effective construction.

Metal building systems provided economy and a logical method to produce the three buildings whose activities required long clearspans and 24-foot high eaves. Butler Manufacturing Company supplied the metal building systems through JMH Construction, the Joplin-based Butler Builder that led the design-build project. McElwee & Associates provided design services on the project team.

The individual buildings are known as "The Autumn Ramp Park," a 20,000-square-foot indoor skateboard and BMX bike-ramp facility that also has an equipment and apparel shop. The 5,694 square feet of mezzanine space serves the school and an alternate revenue stream.

The Foundry, a 7,000-square-foot concert venue, occupies another building that also features a 50-foot-by-25-foot performance stage, state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, juice bar, booth and bar seating, box office and pool tables.

The Bridge—clearly the signature building anchoring the complex—has 16,500 square feet on the ground level and 8,900 square feet of mezzanine. Exposed structural steel across the façade symbolically suggests a bridge superstructure in step with the underlying mission of this busy hub. This main building has a 33-foot-by-52-foot caged court for basketball and volleyball, a 45-foot climbing wall, concessions, Internet café and videogame/network arcade.

In addition to providing the resources that appeal to contemporary youth, the buildings can easily adapt to changing interests. In fact, The Bridge could serve as the template for other new-generation youth centers elsewhere across the country.


The Bridge:

Butler Manufacturing Company:

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