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."

Develop Your Goals

After getting input from your community, refine the raw data into a workable, realistic plan.

"There's no one size fits all," Rogers said.

So, it's important to understand your needs.

When the New Canaan YMCA in New Canaan, Conn., began a renovation and expansion project, Rogers and his firm were brought in early.

"They had decided what they wanted or thought they needed programmatically," Rogers recalled, adding that the YMCA wanted expanded studio and educational space, but hadn't decided specifically on square footage or what types of spaces. "We helped refine those definitions and turn them into a quantitative program that could be the basis for an architectural design."

And although you might have a firm sense of your shortcomings and needs, consider, too, what hasn't even caught on in your community yet. YMCAs—and presumably other types of sports and fitness facilities, too—have a tendency to define their "future needs in terms of present programs," Rogers explained.

But, it's important to look beyond that as you set goals. Consult with other facilities in different areas and see what's working for them, he suggested. Or check in with professional associations and organizations to get the latest news on recreation innovations.

Curry confirmed the importance of professional input for the Forney park project. Because Forney is a small town with a small parks department, Curry knew he'd be managing the project. And, he didn't want to be managing the construction site as well.

So, Forney chose Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, a well-known design and landscape architecture firm, based in Arlington, Texas, and a contractor who specializes in parks, to help.

Curry highly recommended having a firm grasp on your vision going in, because even though they're pros, "they're still a new group of people," he explained. "They'll have their own ideas. Some are good, and some won't make sense to you. So, the more detail you can give them, the more likely you are to have a successful process."

Understand Your Budget

While you're brainstorming ideas and prioritizing your community's wish list, it's a good idea to concurrently get a handle on the finances available for your project. Working on these two tasks together will help keep you grounded in reality.

Getting a recreation or fitness project off the ground is "a very iterative process," Rogers said. "You don't just go in."

You have to ask: What is your budgetary capacity? What sort of membership (and membership fees) can you realistically expect? What sort of capital campaign might your town be willing to support?

"In this process you get to identify what are the things of highest value … and what are the things that maybe at a certain budget level can't be justified financially," Rogers said.

There's nothing wrong with dreaming big, just don't go broke. Perhaps you'll do your construction in phases, but if you have a grand vision for the future, why not get it organized now? One of the driving forces behind the Forney Community Park project was not just the town's current population, but the needs they anticipated for future Forney residents.

Although Curry hoped to build the whole project at once, Forney had never passed (or even proposed) a bond issue to its residents before. And, in addition to the park, there were various items like a new police station and some highways and bridges that needed funding. So, they settled on phase one for now, but are continuing to make plans and purchase land for phase two and beyond in the years ahead.

Make Your Spaces Multitask

Once you decide to invest in some snazzy new spaces, make sure you structure them to serve a variety of functions. This might mean including actual multipurpose space in your renovation or construction plans, or it could mean choosing amenities and features that can be used by an array of people at different times.

For example, the SoNo Field House includes a climbing wall and an indoor challenge course.

"There aren't too many around," Panza noted. "The challenge course is an obstacle course elevated 28 or 30 feet in the air, and you have to scramble or build a ladder to get on it. It's great for teambuilding."

Those interested in teambuilding often are corporate types who visit the Field House for this purpose during the weekdays—a time when there might not otherwise be much going on.

"Generally, recreation is done between 3 p.m. and midnight, so this organization has said, 'we'll look at events we can have during the day,'" Panza explained. The challenge course's indoor location makes it weatherproof, and the Field House's soccer and lacrosse fields also are available for corporate use. In addition, well-appointed meeting rooms that overlook the action are perfect for post-challenge-course conferences or corporate training.

On the weekends, these spots can be rented for private parties, adding yet another revenue-generating option to SoNo's arsenal.

Parks Director Curry said that Forney Community Park also includes a variety of pavilion spaces available for private party or corporate rentals, so it's not just privately owned facilities that can tap into that market for some added support.

Invite Outside Guests

Perhaps the ultimate means of getting some extra use out of your facilities is to design them to be tournament-friendly. This means clustering several soccer fields or softball diamonds together, providing plenty of onsite amenities for player and family entertainment, and giving your stands the gold-star treatment. And, be sure you get the whole city on board—hotels, restaurants, the Chamber of Commerce—if you decide to go this route, because when a tournament comes to town, it's all hands on deck, and everyone benefits.

A prime example of this sort of prowess? Sioux Falls, S.D.

Although it's the largest city in the state, Sioux Falls' population of 157,000 puts it nowhere near the top tier of U.S. population centers. Yet, this community has hosted three national softball tournaments in the past five years, beating out larger cities for the honor.

"It really is an economic vitality thing for the community, said Director of Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Don Kearney. "With hundreds of teams invading our town for a week, it gives us a boost in revenue."

The parks department teams up with the local convention and visitors' bureau, as well as tournament organizers, to promote the events and ensure a fantastic experience for all involved.

The added revenue for the city has enabled them to construct a new softball complex, and it's a good thing, too. There were 135 teams in the 2007 tournament, but more than 200 competed in 2009.

"Whenever we build we want to do all we can to accommodate as many different types of tournaments as we can," said Kearney, who noted that Sioux Falls hosts soccer tournaments as well. This means scrupulous attention to the details of field dimensions, lighting requirements, seating capacity and parking.

"We also make sure we have proper drainage," Kearney said. "If we get two inches of rain, we don't want to be shut down for two days."

And beyond careful design, at tournament time Sioux Falls has staff on-call 24 hours a day to tend to any emergencies.

"We want to make sure all involved have a great experience—players, fans and coaches," he said.

But, just having a fantastic facility isn't enough.

"You also have to be able to back that up with high-quality tournament management," Kearney explained. "By that I mean making sure volunteer organizations are ready to roll, your housing programs can accommodate the number of rooms needed to house players, you have staff on the ground to make sure everything is perfect. We've set the bar high so people want to come back. You can have a great facility, but if it's not well run, with good field conditions, people will find [that] it doesn't measure up to what they were expecting."

The folks in Forney have played host to several state softball tournaments, as well as Quick Foot soccer tournaments, which involve three-, four- or six-person teams playing on modified fields (team and field sizes vary by age group). Last year, 4,500 participants (and their feet) descended on Forney for the occasion, and Curry was pleased with both the boost to the local economy and the way Forney Community Park handled the extra traffic.

"The layout of the park lets us do quite a bit [at once]," he said. "We try to get the softball association and soccer association to talk to each other and not do events the same weekend, and so far we've been successful."

And, although tournaments are a wonderful boost, Curry keeps in mind the community the park belongs to.

"We can have one tournament or the other and be fine," he said. "The family recreation area stays open. All three venues [soccer fields, softball fields and family recreation area] have their own parking."

In Sioux Falls, Kearney also makes sure the tournaments benefit the hometown crowd.

"It's nice for local kids who participate along with others from throughout the country," he said. "And there have been more than 100 scouts at our tournaments. At one time or another every major college has been here. That's a great recruiting opportunity, and it's great for players to be seen.

"Sometimes the hard part is finding the money to make the initial investment," Kearney said of a tournament-worthy complex. "But if you build it, they will come."

Pint-Sized Cities, Premier Parks!

Norwalk, Conn.: population approximately 83,000 (South Norwalk is a neighborhood within this town)
SoNo Field House: 53,000 square feet with turf fields for soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, plus a climbing wall, challenge course and meeting/party rooms.

New Canaan, Conn.: population approximately 20,000
New Canaan YMCA: 40,000 square feet with a 4,000-square-foot fitness center and a multipurpose aerobics room, plus childcare and preschool facilities and general-use programming spaces.

Sioux Falls, S.D.: population approximately 157,000 within city limits (largest city in the state)
Sherman Park: 205 acres that includes a zoo and "traditional park land," plus a 50-acre, tournament-worthy, nine-field lighted softball complex with shaded stands and concessions.

Forney, Texas: population approximately 13,000 within city limits
Forney Community Park: 70 acres with a softball complex, soccer complex, family recreation area (including playground and splashpad), lighted trails, administrative buildings and wetlands preservation area.

Give Yourself a Facelift

Some of these ideas are on the extensive side, and if the current financial outlook in your neck of the woods is not about to support something quite so extravagant (whatever fabulous returns you might reap in the future), there are still ways you can spruce things up. Some simpler cosmetic changes can make your fitness offerings more up to date—and act as advertising, too.

"For a lot of people, face lifts are important," Panza said. "Just like an open floor plan for houses, [fitness clients] want more open space."

If your health club or fitness center currently is housed behind solid walls and closed doors, consider swapping for some open air and added glass. The latest designs are "now making viewing of what's happening inside just as important as what the people inside are looking at," explained Panza.

All of these extra things to look at not only make the space seem bigger to those working out, but being able to see what's happening inside can entice those outside to enter—or at least make them more aware of your facility's presence.

And even if you are attempting a larger project, don't forget the design details. Sioux Falls is a stickler for tournament regulations when it designs its fields, but the city also tended to some aesthetic elements that non-tournament-affiliated park users will appreciate.

"We really jazzed up the plaza area where you find information," Kearney said. "We've gone all out to make [the park] appealing."

And although Sioux Falls keeps the softball fields tournament-ready at all times—"we'll be called at the last minute if some other community cancels," Kearney explained—"we also want our home players and families to have a high-quality experience. There's lots of pride in the community about our top-notch complexes."

Go Green

Green design is a popular topic in all sorts of circles these days, but creating a "healthy building" particularly makes sense for health-focused facilities. Health and recreation facilities in all sorts of sizes are choosing environmentally friendly construction, Panza said.

"If it's related to education or fitness, there's more of a correlation with wanting to be environmentally conscious," he said.

And the benefits of green design are not just for the earth, they're also for those who will use your facility.

The SoNo Field House opted for eco-friendly artificial turf to avoid any controversy over toxic dust or runoff into the water table. Other eco-friendly and all-around healthy choices include selecting recycled materials and low-VOC paints, as well as designing systems to use less electricity and oil. And, if you opt for an open-air, light-filled design, you'll be green before you know it. The more natural light you let in, the less you'll need artificial lights.

Whatever green options you incorporate, be sure to let the public know. Your current constituents will be thrilled, and you might gain a few new ones as well.

Accent Your Assets

Stand tall and flaunt what you've got!

As you know, there are many great things about being a smaller community.

Part of what helps Sioux Falls in its quest to host national sports tournaments is the conveniently sized city.

"In 10 or 15 minutes you can get across town," Kearney said. "In a larger city that can be more difficult. You might have an hour drive from one place to another."

Sioux Falls' smaller size also contributes to its close-knit community and lower crime rate.

"We think of it as a very family-friendly atmosphere," Kearney said, adding that during tournaments the city sets up Sherman Park (which houses the main softball complex) for "one-stop shopping" with an assortment of vendors, sports photographers and snacks on site.

"There's no reason to have to leave," he said.

Even as it reaches out to the area around it via its fabulous community park, the city of Forney is very keen on keeping its unique heritage in ranching and farming alive. The park's décor and design motif pays tribute to the history of Forney—from the barn-style pavilion buildings, which honor the hay industry that helped put Forney on the map, to the Pink Elephant diner building, which houses concessions and restrooms and is modeled after a popular Forney hangout from the 1930s and 1940s.

"I think [preserving the town's history] was important to me, since I grew up here," Curry said. "From 2005 to 2008 Forney was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and we still probably are, though the economy has slowed us down.

"[When that happens] a small town starts losing its identity. I wanted to make sure the people moving in knew the origin of Forney and its history," he said, "as well as those who have lived here quite awhile."

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