An Uncommon Solution to an Age-Old Challenge:

The City of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (population 50,000) has created a new facility that will be the heart and soul of the community. Sited downtown, the $26.7 million, 114,000 square ft. Natatorium Recreation and Wellness Center is constructed through a unique funding method: a revenue bond repaid with only user fees. This is an uncommon solution to an age-old challenge: building a center with no new taxes.

Historical Background

This story cannot be told without the benefit of discovering our history. The original Natatorium was opened in 1969 as an L-shaped pool, with two locker rooms and a forced-air supported fabric roof. The removable roof allowed the Parks and Recreation Department the ability to “open up” the facility into an outdoor venue. The wear and tear on the roof membrane, as well as the staff was visible in a few years. In 1976, a permanent structural roof was added. The renovations provided a small fitness room and jog/ walk track.

The reaction from the public was terrific, and in 1979, a larger fitness room and new men’s locker room was added. In 1981, six racquetball courts, a lower walk/ jog track, and a women’s locker room was added to accommodate fitness-related programs. In 1989 an aerobics room, a lap pool, two additional locker rooms, a central lobby, Ohio’s first indoor water slide, and a refurbished HVAC system were added. Cuyahoga Falls had the only health and fitness center in Northern Ohio. The City was a model of “cutting edge” parks and recreation facilities.

When you are on top, the tendency is to coast and enjoy the ride. Throughout the 1990’s there were no additions. Staff began to see participation and membership plateau. Revenues decreased, while the maintenance expenses increased. Neighboring cities began to construct community centers with additional features that were not available at the Nat.

A Simple Beginning

By 1998, it was clear that a new leisure pool was required to replace the dive pool and meet demands. Due to the age and deprecation of the swimming facility, the original pool needed replacement. A very important decision was made to measure the community’s needs and demands and survey present users. Two surveys were implemented. The first resulted in 358 responses, and the second resulted in 248 additional responses. The users spoke their minds, and change was requested including Child Care, New Track, Gymnasium, and more programming.

As a result of the survey, the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education and the Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital (now Summa Health Systems) expressed interest in developing a corporate wellness program as part of a facility expansion plan.

Next the City invested in learning what was new in recreation center planning, design and management. In 1999, Cuyahoga Falls staff toured sixteen recently constructed recreation centers in Colorado and Ohio, two “hot spots” for recreation center development. These new facilities offered child care, a new recreation leisure pool, more fitness space and equipment, more aerobics classes, a warm water pool, free weight room, a gymnasium, nutrition programs, professional staff for exercise, and a wellness and corporate wellness program.

The conclusion: The facility must change, and programming must expand.

Recognizing the Community’s Vision

In 1999, the City hired Braun & Steidl Architects to provide a conceptualized plan of potential expansion. The firm interviewed key user groups, reviewed data from the citizen questionnaire, analyzed the existing facility, met with operational staff, defined multi-use spaces and developed a program of required rooms.

Braun & Steidl discovered many difficult existing building issues including multiple floor levels with no way to create openness due to structural systems. There were very difficult circulation patterns within the building, often with narrow congestion points and wet/ dry circulation problems. The additions over the years created three dispersed sets of locker rooms, six total, and yet no family changing rooms. Many technical issues abounded including aged pool, HVAC and electrical systems challenges. Lastly, the location of the downtown site limited the ability to expand.

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