Finding Space

Making Room for Fitness Programming

By Wynn St. Clair

No one would envy the recreation programming space in Poquoson, Va., a coastal town of about 11,000 people. There's no fitness center or indoor pool within the city limits. The nearest YMCA is about 10 minutes away.

Yet, despite these obstacles, local recreation officials have crafted a creative, engaging programming schedule filled with classes found at the biggest of parks departments. In Poquoson, residents can learn to play field hockey, compete in fishing tournaments and participate in a women's kickball league, among other things.

The offerings reflect an innovative staff that finds programming space wherever they can find it: primary school gymnasiums, the municipal building, school cafeterias or public meeting rooms. In Poquoson, recreation officials know if they find the right class or sports league, they'll be able to make room for it somewhere. Their innovative approach is one that could be emulated by any parks department, regardless of size, budget or space limitations.

"You have to be a good programmer," recreation official Gretchen Gochenour said. "You've got to be creative, and you don't always want to mimic the closest locality. Do those things you know the people like, staples like basketball. But also, don't be afraid to try something new."

Alternative Time, Alternative Space, Alternative Sport

No program shows the parks department's commitment to engaging programming and creative space solutions like its fencing classes. Gochenour came up with the idea while watching the Olympics and contemplating new programs. She wanted something unique, something that neighboring towns didn't offer, so it would be easier to attract patrons from around the region. She also wanted to find an equally invested instructor, someone who would inspire participants and care as much about the program as she did.

She found Vicki Hanes, who runs the Isle of Wight Fencing Club in Virginia and is a member of the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association. Hanes initially agreed to hold a demonstration class, but the strong turnout and enthusiastic response prompted the parks and rec department to offer the sport as a regular class. Poquoson now has its own fencing club with instruction offered during the spring, summer and fall sessions at the beginner and intermediate levels. Hanes also provides one-on-one instruction to advanced participants.

"This is a program that kids 10 and up and adults can learn the basics of," Gochenour said. "We've even had families do the class. It's all-inclusive, multi-age. Everyone has the same learning curve. Everyone has to learn the same footwork, how to hold the foil right and the basic steps."

Classes take place on Sunday evening in the Poquoson Primary School gymnasium, which also hosts karate and kickboxing classes during the week. Gochenour said she intentionally chose an unconventional time slot—and location—for the fencing program because the sport is somewhat unconventional itself.

"Of course, fencing is not like baseball," she said. "We chose Sunday because it's a day that's not competing with a lot of other activities. It's alternative time, alternative space, so we're not competing with other sports."

Though it may not be a mainstream sport, Gochenour believes fencing can succeed in similar-sized communities or parks departments grappling with space crunches because it's not a demanding program. Any room that can fit 10 to 15 people can host a fencing class or practice session, she said.

"You have to be a good salesperson if you want them to take your class," she said. "Then, you have to make sure to check in with your instructor to really know and see what they're doing so you can get others excited about it."

For Coach Hanes, who operates her own fencing school about 20 miles away, the partnership between Poquoson schools and the local parks and recreation department has been a creative way to introduce her beloved sport to an entire community. It's such an invaluable opportunity, she's willing to patiently grow the program and help with the outreach efforts.

"It has been a great partnership," Hanes said. "It benefits us because it creates awareness for our sport."

It can work for you, too. Look around your community, and try to find out what kinds of sports or fitness activities aren't available anywhere else. For example, you can start a rowing club, using indoor rowing machines alongside your other fitness equipment both for group classes and individual training. Or what about synchronized swimming? Dodgeball? Disc golf? If you can pique people's interest with an introduction to something new, you might be able to introduce your community to a whole new way to keep fit.

Partnership Pays Off

Poquoson is not alone in its school alliance. With programming space a precious commodity, more and more recreation managers are mining local schools for floor space. In Kamas, Utah, the South Summit Aquatic and Fitness Center embodies such a perfect partnership with an innovative design that allows the center to easily transition from a physical-education resource to a community health club several times a day.

Built in a recreation-minded community, the 52,400-square-foot building's design encourages the center's dual purposes through an open layout that minimizes hidden spaces. It also has separate doors for students and the public. With limited hiding places and controlled access points, educators can keep better tabs on students and prevent visitors from entering the school area.

The center, which is owned by the local school district, features a signature aquatic component with dramatic open space, interactive play areas and two pools. The first is a traditional six-lane, 25-yard competition pool. The other is a leisure pool complete with a 150-foot-long helical slide and a children's play area that includes a tot slide and water cannons. It also has a six-foot-wide lazy river that can be used for floating fun or a water-resistance workout.

The building also houses an indoor track, fitness room and aerobics room. The aerobics room, which cheerleading squads often use for practice, has mirrors mounted on one wall as well as a dual-height dance barre. The room can accommodate several different activities, including dance, karate, kickboxing and yoga.

The facility's centerpiece, however, is its climbing wall. The 32-foot wall pays tribute to the Uinta Mountain range in which the Kamas Valley lies. The wall, which serves as the main focal point as one drives into the center, also gives the school system an invaluable opportunity to teach climbing safety to young students.

"It really has been a success," facility manager Stephen Sutherland said. "We're attached to the middle school, in walking distance from the high school and the elementary school is in sight."

The operating hours are dictated by the school schedule, meaning the building is closed for most of the day so students can use the facility for physical education classes and athletic team practices. The general public can use the facility between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., and then again between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. When school is closed for things like parent-teacher conferences, the fitness center is open to the public all day.

They aren't traditional workout hours, but Sutherland said the school board has worked hard to build enthusiasm and understanding for the endeavor. And it seems to have worked. Not only is the facility enjoyed by many of Kamas' 5,000 residents, but the building also draws patrons from Park City and other neighboring communities.

"One of the keys to our success has been having the support of the board and the community," Sutherland said. "The community has to buy in to the hours we give them. They have to have patience."

The partnership allows the facility to offer recreation opportunities at an extremely reasonable price. A family of seven, for example, can buy a membership for $290 annually. Residents over 60 can use the facility for free.

And by teaming with the school, the fitness center can offer a wide variety of programs, including tai chi, a diving team, drop-in soccer activities and recreation classes for home-schooled children. Facility managers have come up with several creative events, such as dodgeball tournaments and triathlons. Its aquatic center has also made a big splash with things like Swim with Santa and the Pumpkin Plunge, in which participants swim in a pumpkin-filled pool and then pick a gourd to decorate and take it home. It also has a "dive-in" movie night during which families can come and watch films at the pool.

"We've got an amazing board that had the foresight to do what they did," Sutherland said. "We try to utilize as much as we have to benefit all of the people we have."

All for One, One for All

With space at a premium, an increasing number of recreation managers have turned to multi-generational classes to maximize the number of people that can be serviced by a particular program. This movement has lead to mother-daughter dance classes, father-son golf camps and family wall climbing clubs.

In Monona, Wis., recreation officials have begun offering parent-child yoga classes. It's an offshoot of the adult program, which was launched last year and was an instant hit, with more than 80 people registering for the class. Given its success, recreation officials knew it made sense to dedicate space for additional classes. When a community member suggested the class, it seemed like an ideal program for the community and for a recreation staff dedicated to combating the childhood obesity epidemic.

A typical class has about six to 10 participants in each age category, as well as their parents. The smaller setting includes basic yoga movements, with the instructors helping to move toddlers into poses. Classes—which include songs and games to engage young participants—are designed for children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Parents can join the class and get in their own workout.

"Parents are always looking for different fitness opportunities for them and their kids," said Jake Anderson, Monona's director of parks and recreation. "So it's important to us, too."

The classes take place in the lounge room, a smaller room in the 12,000-square-foot community center. By programming the classes there, recreation officials helped achieve their goal of maximizing their programming space. In addition to being used for yoga, Pilates and senior sit-and-tone classes, it also is home to Cub Scout packs, Girl Scout troops and city meetings.

"Space needs are such a huge issue in recreation management and especially in municipal management," Anderson said. "We're fortunate to have such a close proximity to Madison (Wisconsin) and access to all of their great instructors, we're just always trying to be creative. We joke that our motto is 'Pack 'em in.' "

Located on the shores of Lake Monona in Southern Wisconsin, the town is home to about 8,000 residents. It has more than 330 acres of park space, ranging from neighborhood and community parks to woodlands and wetlands. The community center houses a senior center, as well as a meeting room, lounge area and a large hall that can accommodate up to 200 people.

In fact, there's such a demand for recreation programming, Monona park officials schedule classes in a wide variety of places throughout the building and town. The library, city hall, the community center. If there's available space, recreation managers want to schedule a class there.

Before adding a class, Monona recreation managers weigh whether the class will serve enough people in the area and whether it can be located close enough to the city center. They also reach out to people in the community and encourage them to become instructors. They find it easier to attract participants when the instructor is a familiar face to local residents.

"You just need to look outside the box as to how a space can be used," Anderson said. "It's always a big decision when we add something to our umbrella of activities. We're maximizing community tax dollars by utilizing all of the spaces we have."

Make the Most of It

When outfitting a fitness center, the number-one question is how to make the most of the space you have. The cardio area is going to have at least three different options—treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bicycles.

Given their bulk and constant use, the treadmills will take up the most space. Elliptical machines are becoming more popular thanks to their joint-friendly features and should be given significant real estate, experts say. Though bikes have become less trendy in recent years, they still have plenty of loyal users and should be fixtures in any cardio area because they take up minimal space and are often more durable than other cardio machines.

Here are a few ways to get the most out of your floor plan.

  • Plan first: Do not purchase any equipment without first figuring out where to put it. A strong fitness center design incorporates visibility, accessibility and common sense. The floor plan should be as flexible as possible because fitness center needs are always evolving. As such, add as many banks of electrical outlets as possible so you can rearrange your machinery as needed and add new equipment when possible.
  • Leave some breathing room: Rather than have your cardio space overstuffed with equipment, leave room for future growth and changes in machinery.
  • Mix it up: Rotate your equipment regularly to keep the space looking fresh and engaging.
  • Embrace diversity: While most of your floor plan will be taken up by the Big Three components, fitness managers should leave room for other types of equipment such as stair steppers, stair mills and rowers. They may be less popular, but they still have a place in any modern gym.
  • Don't skimp on the price: A smaller, lighter treadmill may be cheaper than a heavier one, but it also maybreak down twice as much and need replacement parts sooner. Make sure equipment can take punishment.
  • Have a wall: Given their vertical nature, climbing walls offer an excellent recreation opportunity without swallowing a ton of floor space. They also can add an interesting architectural element to any facility.
  • Program the equipment: Reserve a few treadmills, bikes and elliptical machines for group use or classes each day. Not only will it spark interest in the machines, it will give patrons an added benefit to using the facility.

Take It Outside

Faced with a lack of indoor space, some fitness managers have turned to the outdoors to help boost their programming menu. Boot camps, kickball leagues, yoga classes and basketball leagues all can be offered al fresco without taking up massive amounts of park space.

But, as with any new recreation class, trailblazing outdoor programs need time to grow and attract participants. In Elmhurst, Ill., for example, parks officials have spent the past year building interest in a girls running club that will teach preteen runners the importance of fitness and self-esteem. The idea came from a local preschool teacher who was inspired by a national program called "Girls on the Run," which has several offshoots in the Chicago area.

"It's a program not only to get girls outside exercising and enjoying some kind of physical activity, but it also helps build self-esteem, self-respect and moral fiber, while promoting strong values and the importance of healthy living," said Matt Poole, a program manager with the Elmhurst Park District.

The 10-week program aims to prepare tween girls to run a 5K race as a team. Once it's established, the club will meet twice a week for an hour. The first half hour is dedicated to talking about self-esteem issues, while the second part will be spent running or engaging in other physical activities. The program will begin with five-minute runs and then slowly build up the distance so the girls will be able to tackle the race. Given most of the running is done outdoors, program managers don't have to worry about finding enough indoor space for the group.

But such innovative programs and spacing solutions, however, don't necessarily become overnight sensations. Elmhurst has not launched the program yet because they weren't able to attract enough girls when they first offered the program in the fall. However, they believe in the running club's mission and intend to make another push in the spring when people's focus is typically on rebirth and starting over. Poole fielded a lot of inquiries about the program after registration closed, so he gathered e-mail addresses for the interested girls and plans to contact them before the next registration period.

"We know the interest is there," Poole said. "We just hope to get it up and running, and when we do, we know that everyone will get really interested through word-of-mouth after we run the class."

When launching a novel program, it's important to give the classes time to grow, Poole said. It's not fair to the community or the program to abandon the idea—especially when there's an interest and a need.

"You just have to keep at it," Poole said. "Know that it's probably not going to go the first couple of times. You must persevere with creative ways to reach your target audience. You have to keep trying to provide opportunities that people might not normally have."

Opportunities Knock

As a manager of the city parks and recreation department in Poquoson, Virginia, Gretchen Gochenour has the unenviable task of finding programming space for a town with 11,000 residents and zero indoor fitness facilities.

But what some see as obstacles, she sees as opportunities. With a little creativity and a deep commitment to her community, Gochenour offers a stunning variety of programs to her town's residents.

Here are some of her tips for finding the space—and people—you need to offer compelling programming:

  • Partner up: Establish relationships with your high school or local education faculty. They're athletic and recreational specialists, too, and they're well-liked in the community. Many teachers also are looking to make a little extra money, and will be happy to put together programs and classes for you. Their popularity will help attract participants, and their venues often can be used, as well.
  • Find out what others are doing: Look at communities similar to your size and see what they're doing. How are they best utilizing their space? Call for help. Share instructor contacts. If you live in an area where an instructor can drive to a variety of towns quickly, offer something similar—but not exactly the same—using that shared resource.
  • Cast your eyes nationwide: Be sure to use national resources such as the National Alliance for Youth Sports and the National Recreation and Park Association. For some activities, there are grants to help you develop new programs. For example, if you have fields available to host a field hockey program but don't have the equipment, there are grants out there to help you obtain a starter kit.
  • Bridge the generation gap: A great way to economize space is to offer multi-generational programs that allow the whole family to participate. In addition to being a prudent move in regards to space, it also promotes togetherness and a healthy lifestyle. "With the change in our economic climate, this is now a core value that can encourage participation and increases the likelihood of participation," Gochenour said.
  • Stay on top of trends: Keeping your finger on the industry's pulse is a fantastic way of deciding whether your space is being used by the best programming menu possible. Gochenour encourages recreation managers to learn how various age groups are using their discretionary time. Do people want to relax with classes like yoga? Do they want to get fit? Or are they looking for programs that offer both benefits?
  • Plan your programming wisely: Every program you offer takes away recreation space from another potential class. Progressive recreation managers must ask themselves if a particular program is the best offering for a specific space at a specific time. Before signing up any program, Gochenour recommends finishing this sentence: "As a result of this class, my participants will… ."
  • Run your programs well: Nothing wastes recreation space more than a poorly run program. Gochenour stressed the importance of being organized from the very first meeting. Have staff available to answer questions and maintain an e-mail list where you can remind participants of housekeeping items such as holiday schedules and registration dates.
  • Give things time to grow: When you're testing a new class or even a new programming space, it may take a while to build an audience. "Be prepared for failure, but also give things time to grow," Gochenour said.
  • Keep it cool: If you've got a popular new class, keep it hot by not offering it too much. Not only will it conserve programming space, it helps maintain the class's popularity. "Keep it cool and something that people look forward to doing," Gochenour said. "That's the keeping-them-hungry mentality."

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