Money doesn't grow on trees. University recreation centers know this better than anyone. Unlike glitzy college athletic programs with mascots, ticket prices and beaucoup dollars from TV advertising, university rec centers have to be a bit more creative when funding new facilities, renovations or programs.

It has taken years for college rec centers to earn both the attention of their parent schools and the money to step out of their athletic departments' shadows and into their own domains with stand-alone rec centers. Many new centers don't even have to share space with their school's physical education department.

Having complete control over the design of a building, its equipment and its layout has been like a dream for many rec professionals. Across the country, rec centers are used as recruiting tools, and students have come to expect a high-end, health club-like experience when they work out.

And that comes with a price. The cost to build a recreational complex has increased in the past 20 years from $2 million to $49 million. During the next five years, an estimated 400 indoor and 318 outdoor recreational facilities managed by members of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) will be built or renovated for an estimated $4.9 billion, according to the “Kerr & Downs Research Report — Buying Power of Participants of Recreational Sports on College Campuses.” Traditional funding has come from student fees, but whether students can and will step up to pay these increased costs is the question.

“We want these facilities to happen, but you can't do that with the overkill of charging so much money,” says Mary Ann Chappell, director of the KU Recreation Services, who helped open a new student-funded recreation fitness center at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, KS, in 2003.

Schools are turning to new — and sometimes old — sources for funding. While some universities are returning to their “roots” once again by sharing space with the athletic and physical education department, others are finding new partners to share funds with or are relying heavily on student recreation fees. The partnerships between university rec centers and other campus departments are like an evolution, says Chappell.

“There were years where we had multipurpose facilities with athletics, recreation, physical education — anything you could get in there,” she says. “Then everyone needed their own spaces, but now we're going back.”

Branching Out

By consolidating services in a single building, colleges can save money on building and utility costs. Some on-campus partners — namely athletics — come with deep-pocketed donors. Today, few donors give money to rec centers, but Chappell is hopeful that will change in five to seven years when students who used these centers “make it” in their professions and begin to donate money to their schools — and she hopes to the rec centers they enjoyed as students.

Alumni have already played a big part in raising money to build the $14-million Hynes Athletics Center at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. The college used a partnership with the athletic program and money and momentum from the college-wide campaign Vision into Reality (VIR): The Campaign for Iona College to build the rec center.

Launched in 1997, the campaign's goal was to raise $55 million for several school initiatives and departments. Over the course of four years, the university asked every graduate by letter, phone call or personal visit to participate in the campaign. By the end of January 2005, VIR had raised more than $82 million, $14 million of it going to the Hynes Athletics Center.

“Many of the supporters were former athletes or people who had a connection to the college through athletics,” says Matt Glovaski, assistant director of athletics, recreation and intramurals at Iona.

With roughly 3,100 undergraduates in attendance, the small college had previously lacked the resources to accommodate the recreational needs of its students and staff. The new center houses 7,800 square feet of multipurpose courts and a 2,800-square-foot cardiovascular center for students, faculty and staff. The center also shares space with athletics, housing a state-of-the-art rowing tank for crew teams and a wing for athletic department administrators and coaches.

Since the building opened in January, the dynamic on campus has changed significantly as the center has become the social centerpiece of the campus, Glovaski says.

“We are really proud of the changes that have occurred since the opening of the facility, and I have seen firsthand the important role that recreation and fitness play in college life,” he says.

It's a similar story at Ohio State University (OSU) where its Recreation and Physical Activity Center (RPAC) shares natatorium space with athletics. Due to the high costs of building and maintaining a pool and wet area, this is a common pairing, says Bob Larrimer, director of architecture for Moody Nolan Inc. and project manager for the RPAC. The rec center shares its 10-lane, 50 — meter competitive pool; diving well; and locker rooms with OSU's swimming, diving and synchronized swimming teams. Athletics contributed $20 million, or roughly 15 percent of the cost, for the shared space, he says.

“There's less tax money going into these universities, and athletics has a great ability to raise money,” Larrimer says. “That is the advantage of bringing athletics in [with the rec center]. Another pro is the efficiency of not having to duplicate facilities as much.”

The RPAC, which is 75 percent completed, will eventually share space with the School of Physical Activity and Educational Services (PAES). Currently, much of the PAES faculty and staff are scattered around campus in different buildings. By having the academic unit together, faculty, staff and students will reduce their commuting time and have ample opportunity to exchange ideas with RPAC staff and athletics.

“[This building] leads to a sharing of ideas, especially with its common meeting spaces,” says Larrimer. “It can lead to some cross-pollinations.”

A building with this many components can also help elevate a rec center's image or profile, adding new reasons for alumni and businesses in the community to donate, Larrimer says. However, with so many components and ideas from different departments and entities on campus, it can also make it difficult to agree on building size and amenities.

“It's difficult to get different groups to work together, but you are all in this together and you have to bring people to a consensus,” Larrimer says. “I tell them it's just for the common good.”

High-profile buildings with multiple uses can also become unruly design-wise. For example, RPAC had so many components that it became challenging to fit everything within the building's footprint. Larrimer helped solve those problems architecturally, and engineers built gymnasiums on top of gymnasiums to conserve space. OSU also built a separate facility — the Adventure Recreation Center (ARC) — which houses turf fields, wood courts, fitness space, a 4,000-square-foot climbing center and the Outdoor Adventure Center on West campus. Together, the RPAC and ARC cost $140 million, funded from student fees, state funding from PAES and donations to the athletic program.

Student Demand

Although multipurpose buildings can help secure funding and save money, student fees still play a dominant role in most university rec funding. For example, the KU Rec Center plans to reinstate program fees to help pay for an increase in utility costs, student employment wages, building maintenance fees and necessary equipment upgrades. The center has had a static budget since 1999.

“Back in 2000 everything [offered to students] was free,” says Chappell. “We just can't make it anymore. We'll have to go back to fees.”

KU isn't alone in balancing its funding woes with its desire to provide the best rec facilities and programs to its students, staff and faculty. At the University of North Dakota (UND), students picked up almost the whole bill for its $20-million Wellness Center. Students each pay $95 per semester for the center, which opens at the end of this month. The center offers a three-court gymnasium, suspended running track, fitness and weight areas, locker rooms, group exercise studios and a climbing wall. Other features include exam and physical assessment rooms, a healthy cooking demo-kitchen, a quiet lounge, a massage room, pro shop and a computer resource area.

“Quite a bargain compared to local fitness centers, and we will have so much more,” Laurie Betting, assistant vice president for wellness at the UND Wellness Center, says of the student fees.

Other funding for the 107,000-square-foot center comes from the facility's role in ongoing university research and a student technology fee that will pay for overhead cameras that record cooking and nutrition classes.

Minnesota State University (MSU) in Mankato, MN, also used student technology fees to entirely fund the nicknamed “TechRec” area of the Otto Rec Center. The area features 40 pieces of cardio equipment each fitted with an in-house created, adjustable ergonomic stand that holds a computer, keyboard and mouse. Because each component is sweat-proof, students can e-mail, connect to the university server, watch a DVD or surf the Web while working out.

“[Student technology fees] covered 100 percent of the technology — computers, computer stands, wiring, staffing to do so, etc.,” says Todd Pfingsten, director of campus recreation at MSU.

The TechRec area is considered an academic satellite lab, and fitness activity classes are held in the space about 25 percent of the time. That arrangement secured $150,000 for the high-tech area. Student activity fees paid for all of the other equipment, including treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent bikes, steppers and rowing machines.

Despite the costs and fees, students across the country have agreed that fitness and recreation opportunities are important to their college experience, and regardless of budgeting and funding concerns, colleges are finding ways to provide their students with modern rec centers.

“[Rec centers, athletic facilities and other programs] have been away from each other for so long that it's hard to go back together,” Chappell says. “There are some nice tradeoffs though.”

These tradeoffs are namely notoriety, funding, sharing ideas, decreasing costs and providing the best recreational opportunities to students. Money may not grow on trees, but schools are realizing that by putting more departments and services under one roof, the funding branches can extend further than just students' pocketbooks.

Common Rec Center Building Partners

  • Student health/wellness departments
  • Library
  • Computer labs
  • General classrooms
  • Athletic training facilities or administrative offices
  • Student Unions
  • Retail areas/campus bookstores
  • Office space
  • Physical education departments
  • Campus dining halls