New Recreation Centers Help Campuses Compete

Sat April 09, 2005 - Midwest Edition

AKRON, OH (AP) Dominic Mann was thinking about attending the University of Akron and made up his mind after seeing the school’s expansive new recreation center, complete with a rock-climbing wall and lots of glass to watch the workouts.

“It made a difference,” said the 19-year-old freshman, who began his weekend on a recent Friday evening playing basketball at the rec center as his girlfriend, Ashley Ragland, 18, of Bedford Heights, used weight equipment to tone her leg muscles.

Mann, a freshman from Warrensville Heights near Cleveland, played varsity basketball in high school and sees the recreation center as a way to stay in shape for his goal of becoming a non-scholarship walk-on member of the Akron Zips team.

“I like to be active,” he said. “I don’t like to stay in my room.”

Colleges and universities have recognized the value of recreation centers to attract applicants, make a campus more attractive in keeping students and encouraging non-classroom interaction between students and faculty members.

The Corvallis, OR-based National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association representing campus recreation directors and administrators surveyed its collegiate members and found 333 of 700 colleges and universities are building or expanding recreation centers or plan to soon.

Ohio State University is in the middle of a four-year, $139 million recreation center project and Boston University will open its $90 million recreation center on Friday.

In northeast Ohio, two state universities that compete against Akron for applicants in the region have recreation centers under construction.

Cleveland State University recently began construction for a $29 million center intended to make the urban campus more student-friendly. Youngstown State University hopes to have its $12.1 million center, billed as the first at a public university in Ohio built entirely with private funds, open by August.

The culture change on campus can be dramatic with a new recreation center.

At the University of Michigan, which just completed $4 million in upgrades to four recreation centers, the number of visitors rose 66 percent to 45,000 in January over January 2004 at the recreation center that got the most improvements.

William Canning, director of recreational sports at Michigan, said he’s convinced that the retention rate –– how many students re-enroll year to year –– will increase in part due to the recreation center scene.

“The students who come to Michigan don’t come for recreation facilities,” he said, but “they stay and have a better quality of life” because of the centers.

There’s plenty of evidence that young people pay attention when a campus builds or upgrades its recreation center, which typically means basketball courts, swimming pools a running track and, in recent years, rock-climbing walls, specialized training, nearly limitless weight equipment, Internet connections and late-night hours.

Indiana University said an independent student survey showed 87 percent of its students were involved in some recreational sports activity. Seventy-nine percent said it was important to their campus experience, said Kathy Bayless, director of campus recreational sports.

“That does not mean they are gym rats, but they are doing something in recreational sports,” Bayless said.

Recreation centers can serve as an additional social setting, an important factor on a commuter campus like Akron, where many students head home after class.

“I’ve definitely met more people,” said Peter Ipnar, 21, a University of Akron junior sociology student from Smyrna, DE. He has lived off campus and comes back after-hours a lot more since the university opened its $40 million recreation center last August.

“I never lived on campus, so I didn’t meet many people,” said Ipnar, sweaty from a workout on the 53.5-ft. rock-climbing wall. “It really builds your upper body and endurance.”

Ragland likes the atmosphere of people hustling to get in shape or stay in shape.

“It’s fun. It’s kind of intense with workouts and people screaming,” said Ragland, who uses weights, leg-press equipment and a treadmill in three or four 1.5-hour visits weekly.

“It’s helped tone my arms, legs and stomach,” she said.

Another plus: faculty members can use the center, leading to more contact between students and professors outside the formal classroom setting.

Do professors mind students seeing them sweating and struggling with an exercise routine? “Some don’t mind. Some hate it,” said Brian S. Lewis, director of Akron’s recreation and wellness services.