Expert Advice: Planning to Build a Recreation Center?

Author: Jimmy Gleason
Facility Manager – Leonhard Recreation Center

Managing a recreation center comes with many opportunities and challenges, especially if it is a member based facility. As the Manager of the Leonhard Recreation Center for the Champaign Park District, one of the largest challenges I face is balancing our gym schedule. Managing the gym schedule can be a tough balancing act because I have to consider multiple factors such as planning and preparing for internal programs, planning adequate time for members to use the gym, and fielding various rental requests. In order to tackle gym scheduling, I find it important to have a purpose and vision. Is your primary goal to provide beneficial programs to the community, is it to focus solely on your membership base, or is it to use the gym space to drive revenue? I strongly recommend taking the time to determine your vision before building a recreation center. Many large rentals are going to sound enticing because of the potential revenue, but is it going to impact your other programs and members? In order to effectively manage the gym schedule it is essential you have your priorities set.

Each recreation center is going to have a different purpose. At the Champaign Park District, the vision of a new recreation center began with a growing need for gym space. The previous recreation center had just one full size court and more space was needed for our growing sports programs and day camp. Therefore, having a larger gym was necessary to house our internal programs and we built a gym with two full size courts, doubling our gymnasium space. In addition, the Park District had a secondary goal as well; we wanted to add other amenities such as an indoor playground, meeting and activity rooms, and a weight room. These features were added to provide a place of leisure and fitness to the community at a reasonable cost. The goal was to service as many community members as possible; providing a place of leisure and healthy activities for all. When adding these additional features and creating memberships the balancing act ensued.

First we had to ask ourselves if we wanted open gym to be part of our membership. If it was going to be part of our membership was it going to be a limited benefit or was it going to be a primary benefit? Once open gym volleyball and basketball were included in our membership the gym space was no longer just for internal programs and rentals during free times. Now with each and every rental request and internal program we have to consider how it will impact members. At the Leonhard Recreation Center we decided we wanted our facility to be a place where families could come and enjoy sports together, a place where youth can play after school instead of being glued to the television set, and a place adults can come and release stress and enjoy.  Therefore, we included open gym in memberships and limit rentals making sure we first meet the needs of our internal programs and all of our members.


The catch is this: with a large recreation center comes large costs. Memberships and internal programs cannot always offset your expenses. Therefore, rentals may become necessary to balance the bottom line and this is where the real challenge begins. We had to ask ourselves a few questions. In order to balance our programs and member’s needs, while still fielding rentals, do we have set open gym times and never budge for rentals, do we have set open gym times and make occasional exceptions for rentals, or do we take rentals as they come and vary our open gym schedule? At Leonhard, we vary our open gym time, posting a new open gym schedule every other week. This allows more flexibility to take on rentals and I simply have to consider the members and internal programs when booking.  In fact, at times I have to turn down rentals simply to make sure we are maintaining adequate gym space for our members to enjoy. Or, I may have to turn down rentals, such as a wedding in our gym, which would impact our members experience on the elevated walking track. Is it fair to my committed members to shut down the track for a wedding reception? On the other hand some rentals I find are beneficial to members and the community at large and are worth cancelling a few open gym slots.

As you can see, scheduling a gym in a membership-based recreation center can be complicated and takes consideration. Having a purpose and vision will make the decisions more clear. That is first step to success, but certainly not the last. Once you have your mission mapped out, take time to start dreaming and brainstorming. Start to envision your new recreation center and the possibilities it may make available. Do not forget to ask the hard questions like, “Is this the recreation center that meets our needs?” or, “Is it large enough, or maybe even too large?” These questions will force you to consider realistic use and implementation of the facility. What will your “day-to-day” look like? If you are going to have numerous volleyball and basketball programs, will they need to be going on simultaneously? How much staffing is going to be needed to maintain the facility and cover needs from program to program? Do not be afraid to be critical after you have taken the time to dream.


Remember, when asking these questions and talking with other recreation centers there is no “one size fits all.” Each community has different needs, demographics, and competitions. One thing I do find to be universal is that you need the proper equipment. Do not cut corners on equipment in your brand new gymnasium, as it will only cause headaches and more spending down the road. Having the proper divider curtain system, for example, has been amazing for our needs. Being able to raise and lower divider curtains to section off courts with a simple touch saves time and allows flexibility. It is rare for our facility to only have one sport and or program going on at a time. Often times we have our after school program playing games in one quadrant (or cross court), while open gym volleyball is going on in another quadrant, and open gym basketball going on in the other half of the gym. Additionally, being able to raise and lower baskets with a few pushes of the buttons is just as amazing. It makes for a quick transition from basketball to volleyball or from 10 foot rims to 8 foot rims on four different courts. I urge you not to take the “cheap” route and find yourself unable to divide courts easily, manually raising and lowering baskets one at a time, or being stuck with baskets that do not raise at all, only to wish you had the proper equipment and flexibility to meet your needs later.


Patricia H. Leonard Recreation Center Features:

  • Two (2) full-size IHSA basketball courts which may also be divided into four (4) IHSA regulation-sized volleyball courts.
  • A large indoor playground  available for use during all open hours.
  • A three lane walking track (10 – 11 laps = 1 mile)
  • Group fitness room.
  • Cardio/Weight room available during all open hours.
  • A party room that is available for rent or as part of a party package.  The party room also hosts youth programming.
  • Meeting room that is available for rent.
  • Locker room (no showers; bring your own padlock).
  • Geothermal heating/cooling system.