Augusta, GA, Residents Are Lucky Beneficiaries of 13th Kroc Center

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Most of us in the health club industry are already aware of the state-of-the-art Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Centers that the Salvation Army has been opening—thanks to a generous gift from the estate of Joan Kroc—since 2008. But although the Augusta, GA, Kroc Center, which will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, will be the 13th of its kind in the country, the name is still unfamiliar to many.

“The trick, when you have a new brand like the Kroc Center, is that when people hear it they don't know what it is,” Anthony Esposito, the center's public relations coordinator, told me when I chatted to him and a few of his colleagues after the Kroc's soft opening in late July. “Our challenge has been to get people either to walk in the front door and see it or to see it or read about it in the media. That's been the biggest battle—helping people understand what it is.”

What it is is something entirely different from the facilities most Americans would associate with the Salvation Army brand, namely group homes and homeless shelters. When Joan Kroc donated $90 million to the Salvation Army in 1998 to build the first-ever Kroc, in San Diego, her vision for the center was that it would offer the city's low-income families exposure to people, activities and arts to which they might not otherwise have access. Today's Kroc Centers are modeled on that San Diego Kroc and are built in low-income neighborhoods with the highest quality materials, equipment and features to attract middle-class families from surrounding areas, according to Joan Kroc's wishes.

“What she wanted was a rich, diverse group of people using Kroc Centers,” Esposito says.

augustakroc_fitness800.gifThe exterior of the Augusta Kroc may resemble the 19th century mills in the area, but everything inside is perfectly modern. (Photos in this post are courtesy of the Augusta Kroc Center.) The center's “fitness corridor” offers Concept2 rowing machines along with the latest strength and cardio equipment from Life Fitness, complete with individual TV screens and virtual trainer programs. Matrix Krankcycles have been ordered, along with Danish-built Body Bikes, the stationary bicycles recommended by Les Mills for use in its RPM group cycling classes. The Kroc is licensed for that and five other Les Mills classes, and it soon will add Zumba and original programming to the mix, according to Cindy Stephens, the center's health and fitness manager.

Families will be able to beat the Georgia heat in the Kroc's aquatics center, which features a 75,000-gallon leisure pool, a 190-foot water slide, a kids' splash pad with water cannons and geysers, two 60-foot lap lanes that also can be used for pool sports, a lazy river and a large hot tub.

“Joan Kroc demanded excellent facilities, excellent programming and excellent people,” Esposito says. “As soon as you walk in the door, you realize that the facility is not some poor man's community center but a level of excellence that has never been seen before in Augusta.”

augustakroc_pool800.gifThis is not to say that the $34 million center does not cater to the low-income community. Thanks to a $60 million endowment, the Kroc can offer low-income people all of the luxuries that they usually could not afford at a budget price. The monthly membership for an individual is just $30, and a family of six can join for $50 a month, including all programming. Discounted rates are available for seniors and youths under 17, and the center has just started offering sliding scale memberships that adjust fees according to income.

The center also will provide programming for special populations. It already has partnerships with Champions Made from Adversity and the Augusta Warrior Project that will allow those organizations to use the facility to offer fitness and sports programming to wounded veterans and others with disabilities. The center's aquatics manager, Annie Lucero, says that she also plans to introduce a number of low-impact classes aimed at older members, including adaptations of Arthritis Foundation aquatic programs.

“At the dedication, somebody said that the Augusta Kroc is a country club that everybody can go to,” Esposito says. “And that's pretty much right.”

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