In my mid-20s I had the opportunity to manage a gym called the Norris Sports Complex. It was a publicly-owned and managed facility attached to a high school in St. Charles, Illinois. As such, it was open for evening hours between 6-10:00 p.m.
Dozens of runners used the indoor track, which was eleven laps to the mile on the inside lane. Dozens more walkers and heart rehabilitation patients used the other lanes. This mix of people moving at different speeds required cooperation on the part of all those who used the track. More than once I had to counsel much faster runners to avoid the earliest hours the gym was open because the track could be crowded.
Interaction with the public included sports such as basketball, with an enormously popular open gym program. Players from towns up and down the Fox River came to play. This created consternation among some members of the community who saw the gym strictly as their own.
There was volleyball time, and indoor soccer setups as well. It was soccer that actually payed the bills and kept the lights on. Soccer as a sport was just taking off in Illinois in the early 80s. Indoor facilities were rare, and teams payed a premium to play.
Supply and demand
Such are the swings of supply and demand. The true profit center of the facility was hidden from view of the nightly public that came through the doors. Sometimes the soccer boards would go up on a Friday night and come down on a Sunday evening. The tall black curtains that divided the basketball or volleyball courts would be raised, and the gym would open up like an entirely new world. This was the rhythm of money flowing through the coffers. You can’t run a gym without it.
All gyms have some sort of similar dynamic. At the XSport gym where I belonged the last three years, the profit centers were clear enough to see. Beyond membership fees there were classes filled with aerobics and spinning. These were typically packed.
Yet the swimming course that was held in the four-lane pool ultimately had its limits. Only so many people can be squeezed into those lanes at a time if they’re not expert swimmers. Having people cruise the lanes at different speeds and abilities just doesn’t work that well. So the gym closed down the swim lessons. They weren’t making enough money to justify the instructor’s fees.
On to new digs
Which is why the new gym where I work out is a case study in exercise for the public good. The gym is called the Vaughn Center. It is run by the Fox Valley Park District, a publicly funded organization that provides recreational and fitness opportunities to a number of large and small communities along the Fox River west of Chicago.
The place is alive with people of different ages and fitness. Kids roll around on scooters inside a giant play area. There is also a pool playground featuring splash areas and zero depth pools for families to enjoy. The regular 10-lane pool is an immaculate facility staffed by alert guards who keep watch over the pool at all times. Youth and adult swim teams gather for practices.
The 200-meter indoor track is chartered out for early morning workouts by the Aurora University track team. Many others tracksters of all ages do workouts there as well. Inside the track there are always basketball games going on, mostly pickup and half court contests. But one court is used for the serious players as well.
The weight rooms have all the right equipment and go through the spectrum from treadmills and ellipticals to weight machines, weight bench setups and free weight areas.
So for a triathlete, the facility is perfect. That’s why Sue and I both left behind our XSport memberships to set up training at the Vaughn. The last two years we’ve been doing indoor track workouts at Batavia High School, which opens its fieldhouse to the public from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 during the winter months. I wrote the Batavia Facilities Commission Report that led to passage of the referendum to build the fieldhouse and improve school facilities. So it felt nice to work out in a place in which I’d made a contribution.
But we were spread out over a few facilities to get in our swimming, running and weight work. We will still do Computrain once or twice a week at a local bike shop. But our new home has a room where our bikes are set up. So that’s a handy thing.
The Vaugh Center makes it possible to bring the rest together.
What makes a good gym?
These transitions have made me think more deeply about what makes a good gym, and why certain facilities exist. In some respects, I’ll miss the XSport scene. The facilities were always kept clean. There were plenty of weight machines.
But the towels were a bit skimpy. The lone basketball courts was often occupied to the point where it was hardly worth checking out a ball. The pool was like most pools; wait your turn or beg to share a lane. But with only four lanes, that could be a wait sometimes.
So I’d sit with my legs in the hot whirlpool and wait. Sometimes that was a nice little luxury to have. Yet a part of me still worries about whirlpools in public facilities. A few years back some people at a gym run by a chain of fitness clubs came down with a nasty illness.
I’m no germophobe in general. Things can happen to any club or facility. But when I visit gyms where the upkeep is not up to par, or the pool is murky or such, I do get a bit hinchy about hanging around.
Clearly the experience at XSport was positive. I wrote to the company a couple times to compliment the workers who kept the place clean.
Today I talked with an employee at the Vaughn Center about how much the cleanliness stands out, especially in a public facility. Obviously, that’s a top priority.
To me, that shows the value of both kinds of facilities. Publicly owned facilities can provide a great value to people. And many provide services that privately run clubs do not offer, or care not to provide. While shooting baskets one day last week, I watched a pair of Special Olympic athletes being put through some workout paces by their coach from the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association.
Later an entire team of Down’s Syndrome athletes showed up to play basketball as well. Their enthusiasm was obvious. One of the players had arrived much earlier and had been focused on his shooting for more than half an hour. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he rebounded his own shots. His form was consistent and his aim accurate. He took his game seriously.
Opportunity for all
As everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a great believer in opportunity for all. That’s why I believe it is important for publicly funded fitness facilities to exist. They provide opportunities for people that might not otherwise havethe chance to work out because what they do, or who they are, is simply not profitable enough for some businesses to sustain.
One wonders, with all the talk of privatizing Social Security and Medicare and every publicly run program in the universe, if facilities like the Vaughn Center and others will somehow come under fire as a “waste of taxpayer dollars.” A park district is a form of government, and many are known to provide a great return on investment. Some are also quite profitable. But they exist because they are supported by money levied on the public.
There are people who hate that idea more than anything else. Some are poor and only want to cut their taxes. Some are rich and only want to keep more of their money, and damn the rest. Sometimes the rich convince the poor they’re voting in their best interests by preaching about eliminating taxes or cutting government programs. On the surface, this sounds wonderful to people trying to make ends meet. But when they find out that their local gym is closing, or their health care is going away, or their Social Security age just shot up to 70 years old, they find out they don’t have that much in common with the rich after all.
I didn’t make a whole lot of money when I was running the Norris Sports Complex way back when. It was a part-time job on top of my regular work. But it was a full-time job in the sense that I had to care quite deeply about the health and safety of all who used those facilities. That’s often how public servants go about their jobs. The paramedics and fireman and police typically don’t get rich off their public sector jobs. But if the benefits are decent they can live a fairly good life and provide for their families. Sometimes the system is generational, or has been, but public servants such as school teachers have been hit time and time again to cut their benefits in one way or another. Often this is the product of an administration-heavy philosophy, and those need to be corrected.
But government “waste” is seldom the product of the fireman or teachers who do their jobs. Nor is it a waste to provide opportunities for Special Olympic athletes to have a nice place to work out. It’s called quality of life, people. That’s an American value.
On a daily basis at the Norris Sports Complex, I’d talked with the people who came through those doors. Some of them I still see around town decades later. We share a nice bond from a period in our lives when gyms like those were a novelty. We’d shared time together, and smiles. And there is no putting a price on that kind of investment. It is its own profit center.