San Francisco Kroc Offers Community More than a Place to Keep Fit

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I've been hearing—and writing—about the Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Centers since I joined Club Industry about six months ago. It was only a few days ago, though, that I had the chance to visit one.

This week, the CI team is attending the IHRSA show in San Francisco—home of the first Kroc center to be built with the posthumous endowment left to the Salvation Army by Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc—so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and visit the facility.

Although the Kroc is just a 15-minute walk from our Union Square hotel, its location seems a million miles away from the tony restaurants and boutiques on our doorstep.

The Tenderloin district, where the Kroc is located, is often described in guidebooks as San Francisco's worst neighborhood. It's easy to see why tourists are warned to avoid it. As I made my way down Turk St. to the Kroc, I walked by a multitude of down-and-out people congregating on every corner and outside the liquor stores, strip clubs and shelters. Many spoke to me as I passed them. Quite a few were speaking to themselves or to no one in particular.

I never felt threatened during my walk, but I was certainly very uncomfortable. It was a relief when I finally reached the camera-monitored doors of the Kroc and was buzzed in to its secure reception area to meet with Maj. George Rocheleau, who manages the center and delivers its Sunday-morning services assisted by his wife, Maj. Dawn Rocheleau.

Rocheleau has been involved with the San Francisco Kroc since before it even opened in 2008 and proudly showed off its features, many of which he chose himself. The center's fitness facilities include a heated indoor pool, cardio room with about 35 pieces of Life Fitness equipment, group exercise studio with Life Fitness and Keiser cycles, and a large gymnasium that can be used for team sports.

Thanks to the Kroc endowment, the center didn't have to scrimp on construction or equipment, but the focus is on high quality and durability rather than luxury. That said, the clean showers, comfortable locker rooms and top-quality cardio machines that other club members probably take for granted are very likely considered a luxury for many of the Kroc's members.

At the same time Rocheleau was showing me around the facility, the tax exempt competition forum was taking place back at the IHRSA show. There is a lot of discussion within this industry about the fairness of nonprofit fitness facilities' tax-exempt status. Many for-profit clubs feel that some nonprofits are no longer fulfilling their mission to serve the community but are instead catering to those who might very well otherwise belong to a for-profit club that doesn't receive the same financial advantages.

Every for-profit versus nonprofit case is different, but having visited the San Francisco Kroc, I can say with 100 percent certainty that it is one nonprofit facility that certainly has not lost sight of its mission. In addition to hosting daily lunches for seniors, computer skills lessons for adults, children's literacy programs and after-school programs, the center opens its doors to a neighborhood school so its young students can take part in physical education classes in a safe environment. The school does not have a gym of its own, so before the Kroc was built, the children's P.E. classes had to be conducted in a disused parking lot across the street from the needle exchange that serves the area's drug addicts.

In this economy, most nonprofits are reporting decreased financial assistance from individual and corporate donors, and for-profit clubs are struggling to attract and retain members who are tightening their belts. These days, almost everyone could use a break—and I hope that for-profit and nonprofit facilities can find a way to achieve a level playing field without sacrificing either's ability to serve their members, especially those like the kids in the Tenderloin. They need a break, too.

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