Wrecking the Rec Center

Column by Hal Walter

Local Politics – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

USING THE FINGERS on both of my hands, I can total all full-time Custer County residents I know who maintain regular exercise programs. And some of those programs aren’t even all that regular.

I’m excluding from this list residents whose daily activities include low-weight, high-rep, 12-ounce curls, deep-nicotine-breathing exercises, and anærobic assault. Regular exercise is just not a priority for these folks.

Still others get their workouts through unstructured high-intensity activities such as bucking hay bales, stretching barbed wire, pounding fence posts, and wrestling with livestock. They really don’t need a gym either.

So I’m really baffled by plans of a group called Custer 2020 to build a $9.5 million recreation center with donations and grant money on 15.64 acres of donated land northeast of the school. The recreation center sounds like a great idea — I’d be one of the first people in line for a membership, and the youngsters in this area truly do need a healthy place to congregate. But I do have some serious questions about such an ambitious and expensive project in a county where beer breath is not altogether uncommon in the morning and chainsaw exhaust is a popular cologne.

Let’s just use rough numbers and simple math, and assume that each and every resident in Custer County will regularly use the recreation center. If there are about 4,000 residents in the county, the projected cost would be $2,375 per resident just to build the recreation center in three phases of construction. If the center were to be built in one construction phase, the price is projected at a little under $6.4 million.

Keep in mind that in 1995 Custer County voters rejected a proposal for a new $4.5 million elementary school. I guess we’re realigning our priorities by building a recreation center that will cost more than twice as much as a facility to educate our children.

The center would feature swimming, therapy and play pools, weight room, gymnasium, walking track, racquetball courts, climbing wall and exercise room, as well as offices, community room, kitchen, and snack bar.

It would offer all manner of sports and exercise programs, wellness clinics, and other social activities.

I’d imagine that proper maintenance and staffing of such a facility would make it one of the largest employers in the county. These facilities do not come without lots of maintenance expenses and headaches — just ask the folks in Leadville where a huge recreation center/intermediate school has continued to cost big sums of taxpayer money long after its construction was complete.

I’ve maintained a lifestyle as an avid exercise freak in Custer County for 14 years. In that time I’ve seen the rise and demise of two “health clubs,” a downhill ski “resort,” a mountain-bike race, a running race, and a cross-country ski race. The bottom line is that there’s not enough community or outside involvement to keep this stuff alive.

The only sporting tradition that has stood the test of time is the annual “Turkey Bowl,” a Thanksgiving Day event in which some locals play what has the reputation of being a fairly violent game of pick-up football.

But even that involves only 22 or so guys, happens only once a year and can’t cost anything more than a rare ambulance ride to the clinic.

There are those who will argue that the community’s demographics are changing (this is a politically correct way of saying that a “higher class” of people with money have moved in and that more of them are on the way). But I’ve noticed several “for sale” signs on houses lately and know there’s a minor exodus happening. Of the eight homes nearest to mine, five are for sale. Throw in mine and that makes six out of nine — a perfect two-thirds. Many of these folks moved here, built their trophy homes and then took a look around and saw that there’s really not much of anything here. A few, like me, liked it better before the trophy homers arrived.

In addition to the exodus, many people in the local building community agree that the boom has leveled off, and one real-estate office has pulled out. On the national front, some analysts predict a recession in the next few months.

I always suspect the local real-estate industry whenever an idea as outrageous as this surfaces. The Mudcliffe ski resort is still fresh in my memory. A shiny new recreation center might help attract some new residents or help some residents make a decision to stick it out. But for most, the isolation and hardscrabble existence will be the true deciding factors.

Really, if you’re going to live here, you have to be here for another kind of recreation center — the one outside your door.

In more than two decades of my sporting life, I’ve had the opportunity to work out in some great indoor facilities. While attending the University of Colorado at Boulder I lifted weights, swam, fenced, and ice-skated at the fantastic recreation center that is supported by fees paid by the more than 20,000 students. Also in Boulder, as the guest of publisher John Winsor, I climbed in an indoor rock gym. As the guest of Buena Vista resident Curtis Imrie, I worked out with weights and swam at the swank San Francisco Olympic Club, where the towels are not served up cold.

BUT THE BEST RECREATION sessions I can remember did not happen within the walls and confines of multimillion dollar complexes. They happened in the great outdoors with my own two legs as the equipment.

We already live in the country, so building a “country club” seems unnecessary. However, there are options that would help improve the availability of indoor recreation, while expanding those same options in the local school district. Maybe the Leadville model is something worth exploring — all we’d need to do is expand the recreational facilities already available at the school. The facility could be used for school Monday-through-Thursday during day hours, but open to the public in the evenings and from Friday through Sunday, when school is out.

We could upgrade the already-there gym facilities at the school, and add on courts for racquet and handball. We could build an adjoining swimming pool giving students the opportunity to have a swim team, and adults the opportunity to swim laps before and after school hours. The already-in-place school cafeteria could be upgraded and used for community functions.

This seems much more reasonable than a full-blown recreation center. It would allow for needed classroom expansion and improved recreational opportunities for all residents. And it would cost a whole lot less.

Hal Walter writes and gets way too much exercise in his own outdoor gymnasium near Westcliffe.