Pointing to the Future

The Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

By Steve Blackburn

Sparked by the unlikely combination of a visionary fast-food heiress and the low-key, tradition-bound Salvation Army, an innovative national program is expanding the concept of what a community center can be.

Initiated by a 2004 $1.8 billion gift from the late Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, the ambitious program seeks to build 28 community centers in underserved regions throughout the country. Five of the centers are now open and an additional nine centers are expected to open by the end of next year.

The inspiration for the national program stemmed from the success of a community center Mrs. Kroc funded in San Diego in 1998. Built in a multi-ethnic neighborhood by The Salvation Army, the center substantially expanded the activities and services found in the typical community center. Constructed on a 12-acre site, the center includes an ice arena, gymnasium, three pools, rock climbing walls, a performing arts theater, an Internet-based library, computer lab, and a school of visual and performing arts.

Kroc envisioned centers where people of all ages and backgrounds could gather for self-improvement and holistic growth. She insisted the money be divided equally among The Salvation Army's four geographical territories—Central, Eastern, Southern and Western—and that communities wanting to pursue building a Kroc Center demonstrate their support of the concept by raising a portion of the money needed for the project.

The Kroc Centers present a unique opportunity to successfully combine multiple community functions—church, library, education center, cultural performing arts facility and recreation center—in one all-encompassing complex, resulting in considerable operational savings and increased usage. The intent no longer is to separate user groups such as seniors or teens, but create a place for all community members, as families and individuals, to come together and mix in new ways, as well as enjoy activities specifically designed for their interests and age group.

There is no one specific design template for the Kroc Centers. To varying degrees, each center differs in size, cost and specific amenities. But each center strives to bring together on one site an array of community services and activities, allowing one-stop-shopping for families and others regardless of age and interests.

The Coeur d'Alene Kroc Center, which opened in May 2009, generally typifies what The Salvation Army and Joan Kroc had in mind for what the Kroc Centers should be.

Located on a 12-acre site, the center includes a 400-seat chapel that doubles as a performing arts theater for plays, concerts and other fine arts presentations. Accessible from the indoor theater area is an outdoor amphitheater with a 100-seat terrace and an expansive lawn for additional seating.

There are community rooms for corporate events, meetings, birthday parties and other social events. A commercial kitchen and catering department provides food for these events. The Kroc Café offers snacks and barista service to guests enjoying "The Lodge" living room.

A game room includes three Nintendo Wii units for exercise and play. Think your garage band is destined for the big time? The center also has a recording studio to cut your first CD.

The 14,000-square-foot multi-activity court (MAC) gymnasium is large enough for the simultaneous playing of three team sports—basketball, volleyball, soccer, et al—with room for 240 spectators. There is space for more than 1,000 participants when the space is combined for graduations and similar events.

Other amenities offered by the Coeur d'Alene center are somewhat similar to those provided by a number of modern, multigenerational community recreation centers. They include:

  • A 25 yard by 25 meter, 10-lane competition-size swimming pool.
  • Indoor family-oriented leisure pool with waterslide, lazy river and zero-beach entry.
  • Group fitness studio with a spring-loaded floating floor.
  • Rock-climbing pinnacle.
  • Indoor walk/jog track.
  • A 5,350-square-foot fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Indoor and outdoor playgrounds and a child-sitting facility.

The cost to construct the center and underwrite an endowment for operating costs and subsidization of membership rates was approximately $75 million, with $6.5 million provided by the local community. Monthly memberships range from $8 for youth to $28 for adults and $55 for families. Scholarships are available for those who can't afford the membership fees.

While The Salvation Army is an evangelical part of the Universal Christian church and each center will have a chapel, membership is open to everyone regardless of religious affiliation. The Coeur d'Alene Kroc Church congregation averages 250 people each Sunday.

In its promotional material for the Coeur d'Alene Kroc Center, The Salvation Army declares, "The programs, as well as the building itself, have been designed to stimulate the mind, body and spirit, to provide hope, and to transform the life of each and every member of the community."

Lofty goals, to be sure, but the Coeur d'Alene center is on track to become a phenomenal success. In an area of northern Idaho with a population of roughly 38,000, the center had signed up 16,000 members by mid-September 2009.

"The early response from the community has been unbelievable," said Major John Chamness, Kroc Center executive director, shortly after the opening. "It's been much better than we thought," he added, noting the original projection was for approximately 1,500 members.

In a down economy, it is of course naïve to assume that many communities can afford to duplicate the Kroc Center model without a significant outside bequest. But the centers' success should at least expand our vision of what is possible from a community center.

Building and maintaining separate facilities is an expensive proposition. The Kroc Centers have demonstrated the success of combining a performing arts center with a recreation center. Adding a library with modern multimedia resources to the mix—similar to what was done at the San Diego Kroc Center—is a definite possibility for the community center of the future.

Whatever form tomorrow's community center takes, it is bound to be a dynamic, fun place to be with your friends, family or just by yourself. One thing is for certain: you won't be bored.


The Salvation Army Kroc Center, Coeur d'Alene:

Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture: www.brsarch.com

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