Popularity of city-run fitness centers skyrockets

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH and MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 30, 2013 - 6:51 PM

Thanks to changing demographics, city-run fitness centers are drawing more people. Some even rival private gyms.

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Members of the Chaska High School volleyball team met for a spaghetti dinner at the Chaska Community Center last Thursday.

Photo: Photos by CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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From weightlifting to Zumba, more Minnetonka residents are taking their workouts to one central place: the city’s fitness center.

Attendance at the city-owned Williston Fitness Center has skyrocketed since it underwent a $4.5 million renovation in 2010. This year, membership is expected to peak at 8,400; users will top 300,000. For the first time, the city has closed nonresident memberships.

“It’s tough to keep up with demand,” Minnetonka Recreation Director Dave Johnson said. “It’s something our community really needs.”

More metro suburbs are getting into the fitness fad, rivaling private health clubs in amenities with everything from rock climbing to water parks. Eden Prairie and Shoreview are both considering multimillion-dollar additions to their heavily used centers. And St. Louis Park is weighing building a new community center.

“It used to be, you only had aerobics,” said Bill Beckner, a senior researcher with the National Recreation and Park Association. “Now you have to be a full-service entity in order to bring in enough revenue to make it worthwhile.”

However, not all cities can afford such high-end facilities or get taxpayers to foot the bill. And most cities that do so barely break even, because they charge lower fees than many private health clubs and still have free public areas.

But, Beckner said, increased fitness offerings are something residents expect from cities, and they can help make a city more attractive.

“They build them, and people come,” he said.

Benefit vs. cost

That’s exactly why cities like Shoreview have ramped up their community centers to have more of a fitness focus.

Its community center opened more than 20 years ago to attract young families and create a town center hosting events like a farmers market. But since then, it has undergone renovations and expansions to include a water park, a full-service fitness center and an indoor playground. As a result, the number of memberships has tripled.

“We’re comparable to a high-end fitness center,” said Shoreview Community Center General Manager Michelle Majkozak. “We really have evolved … every year we try to add something new.”

As the center nears capacity with 6,500 memberships, the city is planning a $1.1 million expansion in 2015.

Chaska was an area pioneer in full-service community centers, building its center for about $9 million in 1990. It includes swimming pools, ice rinks, a track, gyms, a day care, a senior center, an art gallery and a 250-seat theater.

Chaska City Manager Matt Podhradsky considers his city’s center a primary marketing tool. About 25 percent of members are nonresidents, and use is increasing at a steady 3 percent a year.

“It creates a place where people can gather and call home,” Podhradsky said. “Nothing stands out more to me than a community center as a special place to draw people.”

Running the center will cost the city about $3.3 million this year. Unlike most city-owned centers, the Chaska center is self-supporting. Debt service on improvements is funded through transfers from the city’s municipal electric utility.

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  • Fares Garcia, 23, worked out at the Chaska Community Center. Like other suburbs, Chaska seeks to offer a central meeting place for area residents, but unlike many other centers, Chaska’s is self-supporting.

  • Katie Colleran, 7, played basketball with her father, Mike, at the Chaska Community Center last Thursday. Chaska was a pioneer, building its full-service community center for about $9 million in 1990.

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