Capital budgets look relatively healthy at many university recreation centers across the country. That's the good news.

The bad news: Operating budgets appear to be stagnant or, in some cases, declining by as much as 10 percent.

In 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available), almost $4 billion in capital projects were underway at higher education recreation centers that belong to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). That was up from $3.1 billion in 2006, reports NIRSA. Moreover, the average project expenditure was $20.7 million in 2008, up from $19.4 million in 2006.

Although that data is encouraging, the number of schools that were involved in facility construction, expansion and/or renovations was down — 174 in 2008 from 220 in 2006 — no doubt because the rough economy has more university decision-makers taking a more cautious approach.

Of those universities and colleges that are continuing to expand their recreation offerings, the prospect of soon being able to offer state-of-the-art facilities and programming is having a heady impact on campus.

REC CENTER BUILDING BOOM

The expansion of Reed Gym at Idaho State University's main campus in Pocatello, ID, was 60 percent complete in October. The university is adding 32,000 square feet to its existing 70,000-square-foot rec center. New features will include a large multipurpose room, additional space for weights and cardio machines, campus recreation offices, new bathrooms, and a lounge area, as well as a dramatic two-story enclosed atrium.

Douglas Milder, director of campus recreation at Idaho State, noted that the school's original recreation facility, built in 1951, needed an update to continue attracting students to the school.

“We started this project in 2003, and students agreed to expand the recreation facility, even though most of them would be gone by the time the construction was done,” says Milder. The $7 million project is being funded by a bond that is based on students' recreation fees included in each semester's tuition bill. The new facility is expected to be open next spring or summer, says Milder.

Western Oregon University, Monmouth, OR, broke ground in October on a $30 million renovation of its circa-1935 physical education building to turn it into a modern health and wellness center. Construction crews will renovate the existing structure and add 80,000 square feet that will include an elevated running track, two racquetball courts, two basketball courts, a rock climbing wall, 25,000 square feet of classrooms and a kinesiology lab. The work is being funded mostly by the school's renovation budget as well as a student-approved construction bond.

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, the years of waiting and planning to renovate the Student Fitness and Wellness Center are almost over. By December, a final decision about renovating the 52-year-old rec center should be in hand, says Howard Taylor, director of the division of recreational sports.

If the plan goes through as expected, the center will increase from 213,000 square feet to 322,000 square feet and will be better connected to the university's aquatics facility next door.

“Ours was the first standalone university recreation center of any U.S. college or university in the country,” says Taylor. “Previously, recreation centers were part of the athletic department. Purdue has not done a major renovation of the facility since then, however. And students were complaining about the facility.”

The new center will triple Purdue's space for fitness, cardio and strength training, as well as double or even triple the number of multipurpose rooms, which can be used for both fitness and student organization meetings. Purdue has more than 800 student groups, some of which center around martial arts and dance, and neither the current recreation center nor the university has room for these groups to meet, says Taylor.

Additionally, Purdue will modernize the indoor running track and expand the gym to allow more space for basketball, volleyball, badminton and table tennis. Administrators also will build a climbing wall and a shallow, warm water pool for swim lessons, water aerobics and other aquatics activities.

The utilities in the original structure will be updated, and systems will be selected, when appropriate, from environmentally sound options, says Taylor.

“We've applied for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building status. Students who met with the architects made it clear that the green alternatives were very important to them in the new facility,” Taylor says.

A new wellness suite will house space for wellness and nutrition counseling, as well as a demonstration kitchen for healthy cooking classes.

“All of these amenities will be extensions of the student learning experience,” says Taylor.

Funding for the new center will come from fundraising efforts and student fees that will be phased in and increased during the next three years. In October, Purdue's Board of Trustees approved a finance and construction proposal for the new facility, which Taylor called a “major hurdle passed. There still are some steps we have to take with the state, and we'll know for sure in December if we're a go.”

Construction crews also are hard at work at the University of Tennessee-Martin (UTM), and Drexel University in Philadelphia. In October 2008, UTM broke ground on a $16.5 million, 96,000-square-foot recreation center that will house a weight room, cardio areas, a multipurpose room, four basketball courts, an indoor soccer arena, a lounge, a walking/jogging area and racquetball courts.

Next Page: SMALL IMPROVEMENTS

The new, as-yet-unnamed facility, scheduled to open in the spring, includes several green construction alternatives, including T-8 energy-efficient lights. The main funding source for the new building is student fees, according to a UTM press release.

The recreation center at Drexel University is undergoing a major renovation that will add 13,000 square feet of gym space, 17,000 square feet of fitness space, two squash courts, a jogging track, a rock climbing wall, two high-ceilinged group exercise rooms with natural light, an expansive atrium and a sports-themed restaurant.

SMALL IMPROVEMENTS

Not all university rec center improvements encompass grand and sweeping changes. Some universities have initiated small but important renovations.

For example, Stephens Fitness Center at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, reclaimed 800 square feet of equipment storage space and renovated it into the Cardio Annex, which houses space for Spin classes as well as ellipticals, rowers and other cardio gear. Also added were air conditioning, ceiling fans, high-density flooring, a sound system with satellite radio and four flat-screen LCD TVs.

“These additions enabled us to increase our treadmills from eight to 20,” says David Leach, associate director of athletics for campus recreation. “So there is less of a wait for cardio equipment now.”

Stephens Fitness Center is part of Princeton's Dillon Gym, which encompasses 172,000 square feet of basketball courts, dance studios, martial arts studios, squash courts and a six-lane pool.

Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, recently opened an Americans with Disability Act-compliant, 3,900-square-foot satellite center in the Marshall Square Mall located on campus. Joseph Lore, director of the department of recreation services, says it was completed based on student input.

“They wanted new and improved fitness facilities,” he says.

The facility, which is handicap-accessible, includes an upper-body ergometer that can be used by people in wheelchairs; accessible, self-locking lockers; two (of 10) treadmills that have Braille overlays on the control panels; contrasting flooring to assist visually impaired exercisers; five (of 12) weight machines that are total-access units; and three accessible bathrooms with handicap-accessible showers.

Lore could not say what the final cost was but notes that the new facility was outfitted using university funding.

At the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center at DePaul University, Chicago, administrators converted an instructional kitchen and expanded it into a multipurpose room, says Maureen McGonagle, director of campus recreation.

The center also recently replaced strength and conditioning equipment. Those renovations and additions were funded by DePaul's Repair and Replacement Fund, McGonagle says.

A refinished gym floor, new equipment and infrastructure repairs were on the completed renovation list at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO, during the past two years, according to Susan Limestall, director of campus recreation.

And in the Student Recreation Complex at Arizona State University's (ASU) main campus in Tempe, AZ, 100 cardio pieces were replaced, and all of the new equipment has cardio theater installed.

“We dipped into our interest reserve fund for this,” says Tamra Garstka, director of campus recreation. “And the students really love it.”

Other recent ASU additions include an outdoor weight room, two outdoor basketball courts and a multipurpose rink for inline hockey, dodgeball and other student activities.

“All were done at the request of students and funded by the student body” says Garstka. “They demanded that we add to the quality of their recreational lives.”

ECONOMIC CONCERNS REMAIN

Although this new construction and renovation news is encouraging, all of the university recreation center managers interviewed for this story said that flat or decreased operating budgets are their new norm.

At ASU, for example, the university president instructed all departments to cut budgets by 5 percent to 10 percent in FY 2009. ASU employees had a choice between taking unpaid furloughs or pay cuts of between 10 percent and 15 percent, depending on the employee's level of responsibility. Most took the pay cuts, says Garstka. However, she has been able to boost revenue for the recreation center by increasing fees for program registration, equipment rental and memberships for faculty and staff.

Both Syracuse's and Idaho State's recreation departments cut their operating budgets 10 percent this year because of their schools' fiscal situations. Milder at Idaho State had to lay off one full-time employee, and he expects a further 6 percent cut to be announced before year's end.

“We need so much new funding, what with our new addition, that it feels like we are stepping into a hole to climb a mountain. But the construction is 60 percent complete, and it will be finished because the capital funding for it is in place, so at least we have that.”

Limestall at Truman State says her budget was not cut this year, but the university put in place other cost-cutting measures university-wide, including hiring and salary freezes (except for promotions). Just emergency-only purchases are being authorized.

Although McGonagle at DePaul also has not shouldered a budget cut, she has been instructed to keep the recreation center's operating expenditures flat.

Leach at Princeton also has managed to avoid a budget cut, but he has reduced costs in other ways.

“We have eliminated the publication of a semi-annual brochure, saving approximately $15,000 a year,” he says. “Information that was typically found in our fall/spring brochures can now be found on our Web site. Additionally, we're looking into other efficiencies, such as combining classes with [low] enrollments.”

Purdue's recreational sports division will shoulder a 2 percent cut in its operating budget next year. The university also did not give salary increases and have trimmed travel expenses, Taylor says.

“On the positive side, our revenue from group fitness and other pay programs are up,” he says. “I think students see these as low-cost ways to stay social and get fit.”

Today's university recreation centers have to do more with less.

“We have to constantly think about efficiency in operations, upgrading facilities, collaborating with other departments in the university and brainstorming ways to help students save money,” Milder says.

“We must stay current on the ever-advancing technology and fitness programming options, all while juggling stagnant or reduced budgets,” he continues. “It's a tough proposition, to be sure. In this fiscal crisis, families send their kids to college, even though it may be financially difficult for them to do so. In return, we offer to those families the valuable service of keeping their kids healthy and fit while they're here.”