Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Fighting for Fitness

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Fighting for Fitness

Article excerpt

How park and recreation departments are battling with private fitness facilities for the right to offer workout rooms in their recreation centers.

Building a new recreation center in Hampden Township in Pennsylvania, seemed like a good idea and one supported by the community. The township's park and recreation department caters to more than 24,000 residents and somehow manages to be successful despite not having a dedicated facility. It relies mainly on the local school district to provide space in order to run its programs. Plus anywhere else it can find room, such as the back of the township hall that is used as a multi-purpose room, the fire hall and a church.

A feasibility study and a business plan were proposed to support the project. Hampden Township Recreation Director Sarah Clugston felt a proposed $11 million recreation center was going to be a "slam dunk." The full-fledged community center included gymnasiums, a fitness area, an indoor track and a swimming pool. Everything was on track until a local private fitness center owner challenged the project, citing the taxpayer-funded facility would be an unfair competitor to his business.

"My argument to the health club owner was, 'Your members are going to stay at your health club. They're not going to come to my community center that's going to have hundreds of screaming kids running around.' We answer to a totally different clientele. We do things like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, flea markets and concerts ... things that health clubs don't do," says Clugston.

Poor timing did not help things either. It was budget time and a civic election was around the corner as the recreation department pitched its plan to the township's board of commissioners. Clugston claimed the local health club owner enlisted help from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade association serving the health and fitness club industry, to launch a "negative campaign" against the proposed recreation center.

"The group of people who were backed by IHRSA was putting out negative publicity, saying that governments that run recreation and parks facilities and compet[e] with the private sector, shouldn't be allowed because we have an unfair advantage," she says. "They basically went out right before our local election and they muddied the waters."

She also added that opponents of the project targeted the elderly in their publicity campaign, charging the recreation center was not financially feasible, township property taxes would be increased to fund it, and that the facility did not have much support from the public.

In the end, the township's newly elected board of commissioners last year voted 4-1 against the project. Clugston says the recreation center likely would have been approved if a candidate supported by the facility's opponents did not get elected. She credits the new commissioner with swinging the vote the other way and stopping the project. Although Clugston remains unhappy with how things turned out, she says it's the township's residents who may suffer. "It was a real low blow to the people who live in our township who are looking to sign up their children for every single thing they can get them signed up for," she says. Helen Durkin, IHRSA's public policy director, says her organization's role is to "provide the other part of the story that has a tendency to get left out." She claims that project costs are often not fully revealed and potential revenues are inflated in order to make the proposal sound better. Durkin stresses that IHRSA is against unnecessary competition and duplication of services from local departments. She says the ideal situation is for park and recreation departments to develop partnerships with private health clubs to extend their reach. "Why do they need to build that $15-million facility? Is there a way to offer programming that takes advantage f existing health clubs in town? …

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