What the heck is a rec center?

Dana Larsen

Seldom does a day pass in Storm Lake without hearing mention of a rec center.

“Why don’t we have a place for the kids to go?” or “Why every community but ours?” folks say. They’re not wrong, and the angst is understandable enough.

Over the past generation, Storm Lakers have tried four or five times to create some kind of ambitious center, none coming close to fruition. I was on one committee that made a hard run to build a YMCA here several years back, but that organization clearly wasn’t in the mood for new projects.

We could sit and say we’ve tried before, it’s never going to happen. And if we believe that, it sure won’t.

Is that impossible? Only if we believe it to be.

We came tantalizingly close when a past Buena Vista University president brought a concept to the city to build a joint campus / community rec center of some kind, but the rub was that the only site open for consideration was smack dab in Scout Park – precious public lakefront land. An emotional public meeting overflowed the city council chambers to an extent I’ve never seen before. The situation was inflexible, the opportunity went away.

We can’t expect the city to do it all for us, or the university, or the schools, or the medical center, or our major employers, though all would likely be valuable partners in some way if an effort were to be successful.

It would have to be a true community-wide campaign. And we’ve never, ever gotten to that stage.

Why not? For one thing, because we’ve never really decided exactly what it is we want and need.

“Rec center” or “community center” are fuzzy, vague terms. Spaces, but undefined. Could be anything from a simple rental hall with folding chairs to a big multifunctional showplace.

We won’t get off the mark until we’ve decided just what we want to create.

Is it a gym? There’s eight in town in various education settings – some are nearly always busy, but could some be scheduled for more public use at night or on weekends? Not sure. The community would need to decide if another is needed.

Is it an exercise / weightlifting place? We have a good fitness facility provided by the medical center, and with community support could that be grown? There are also a couple of private workout center businesses, no one wants to duplicate or harm them.

Is it a pool? The university no longer has one, nor does one figure into its plans and budget at this time. The schools aren’t really set up for one – classroom space needs to be their priority. King’s Pointe has water parks both indoor and outdoor, and with it being community owned, we sure don’t want to take business away from the resort – that is, children and family-oriented water play. If a pool is needed, it would likely be what we don’t have – more of a lap swim / competition facility. We would have to decide if the cost to build and maintain something like that makes sense.

Is it continuing education classrooms? Well, maybe, but there are a plethora of those that might be accessed for community learning opportunities, between all the schools, ICCC, BVU, Community Ed, ISU Extension.

Is it meeting rooms? We do have a few options already, at Extension, the library, city hall, My Place multicultural center, etc., that may not be used all that much.

Is it a stage? The new high school auditorium is a top-notch entertainment venue. Same for the auditorium and chapel at BVU, where leaders seem open to community sharing opportunities like community theater.

Is it a day care center? Hey now, that, we sorely need – but would building a costly community center be the most effective way to fill that crying need? The community would have to decide.

A senior center? We have the golf course clubhouse. Is there a better way that would serve more or be easier to access? Maybe. With Storm Lake’s supported living options, how much of a need is unmet? We’d have to find out.

Is it simply fun? Community centers have offered game rooms for things like billiards, foosball, air hockey and so on. Would that still be a thing at an age when teenagers are glued to cell phones, game consoles and TikTok? Guess we’d have to ask them.

Is it education? We have after-school and summer school programs, would we be duplicating those services for kids, or relocating them?

Perhaps the community has completely other directions in mind when they ask for a gathering place. Let’s hear ’em.

Or maybe we have nearly all of the things people want in a community center in Storm Lake – but have never really networked them together to look creatively at all the opportunities.

Maybe “community” isn’t even a building at all. No matter how lovely and expensive a structure is, it doesn’t do much unless it helps to build a strong, safe and inclusive community, and boosts community pride. There’s the challenge, not what you can build but what you can achieve with it.

The other circus elephant in this room: would people be willing to pay for use of a community center facility or buy a rec center membership? If everyone expects all their desires to be met with no skin of their own in the game, good luck with that.

Even if there are grant opportunities, expect a local match. Suppose some fatcat donor magically appears to help build a place, there has to be ongoing dollars coming in on the back end for maintenance, repairs, equipment, utilities, pay for staff, endowment (not sexy, zero fun, but reality in any development .)

Could we do a center of some kind? Sure, if the need and will are strong enough. We’re Storm Lake, “impossible” isn’t in the vocabulary.

But first, consensus. Ten different people may have 10 different ideas of what we need, what space should look like, and how it should be used.

Until we can agree on what the goal actually is, all this talk will never be anything but that.

Talk.

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