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Newtown Officials Tour Ridgefield Rec Center For Ideas, Best Practices

A half dozen Newtown officials spent about 90 minutes on a recent visit to Ridgefield January 6, getting a tour and some advice on that town’s experience with operating its relatively new and extremely popular recreation center.

The Newtown group was on one of several expected field trips to see a number of rec centers across the state, as the town begins preparing for a new facility here that will incorporate both recreational and senior services.

First Selectman Pat Llodra, Parks and Recreation Director Amy Mangold and Assistant Director of Recreation RoseAnn Reggiano, Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Ed Marks, Commission on Aging Chairman Curt Symes and Commissioner Sheila Torres, along with General Electric administrative assistant Anne Alzapiedi were hosted by Ridgefield Parks and Rec Director Paul Roche and Assistant Director of Recreation Robin Matthews on the visit.

Mr Roche began the visit with a brief meeting to review the department’s history and its efforts to establish a full-service recreation center going back to the late 1980s. After running recreation, community boating, and a day care program from a converted school, the Ridgefield department began planning for the standalone complex that serves the community today.

That new 68,000-square-foot center, set back on Danbury Road (Route 35), opened in 2002. Serving the town’s 22,000 residents, it not only accommodates numerous multipurpose rooms, but a dance studio, two swimming pools, a fitness center, and all the department’s administrative offices.

The Ridgefield Recreation Center offers community members five options for membership, including what Mr Roche described as an “all-inclusive” family package for $85 per month. That plan provides all the benefits of the center’s Wellness, Lap Swim, and Recreation Membership plus free unlimited access to preschool open gym, two free premium fitness classes per adult/per year, and ten free guest passes per family membership.

“All in all you get a pretty good bargain for $85 per month,” Mr Roche told the Newtown visitors. “It’s a lot cheaper than the YMCA.”

The other Ridgefield membership tiers include discounts on classes and programs, invitations to special events and free unlimited use of the Recreation Center pool during recreational swim, priority registration for group swim lessons and front of the line eligibility for private swim lessons. One tier provides exclusive access to the center’s cardio and weight lifting equipment, access to the locker room steam room, sauna, and co-ed whirlpool.

There is also a separate student membership, and the center provides a select number of free or discounted memberships to those with financial hardships applying through Ridgefield’s Social Services department.

Multipurpose Vs Specialty

Ms Matthews told the Newtown visitors that during planning stages for the new center, it was important to provide as much multipurpose space for residents as possible. As a result, all but one of the specialty rooms in the Ridgefield facility have high traffic composite flooring — with only a dance and aerobic studio featuring a wood floor.

Mr Roche also touted the center’s use of ceramic tile versus composite flooring in all the common areas, which he said was much easier to maintain and keep clean. He estimated that the ceramic tile saves him more than $40,000 in maintenance costs over composite or carpet flooring.

He said he also fought to ensure the center would incorporate extra-wide hallways with various games and seating installations to promote impromptu or planned small community gatherings and meetings.

“We really were looking to create a hub where people could meet,” Mr Roche said. “The hallway configuration is such that groups can even use the common areas to hold meetings when all the utility and conference rooms are booked.”

He said the center has done well providing drinks and snacks through vending machines, but residents have been increasingly calling for a coffee shop or snack bar. So in the coming year, Ridgefield officials are planning to accommodate that request.

This year, the facility will also begin installing a “sprayground” — a children’s water facility featuring fountains and sprinklers, which will be located in an underused patio area outside the indoor pool section of the center. That facility will be staffed by local high school students with disabilities who are part of a cooperative program with the human services agency Ability Beyond Disabilities.

Mr Roche said the center generates about $2.3 million in annual income, which offsets the Ridgefield Park and Recreation Department’s $4 million overall budget. The center employs three full-time maintenance staff and three full-time front desk attendants including the facility’s manager.

Cooperative Senior Programs

He told Newtown officials that the new, neighboring Founders Hall senior center has cooperative programming permitting members limited pool and program access without requiring a separate rec center membership.

Ms Matthews recommended that Newtown count on employing rec center support staff versus planning on having critical functions like front office and counter positions staffed by volunteers. And Mr Roche sang the praises of the park department’s marketing and development director he said is primarily responsible for attracting and maintaining the center’s robust membership of 6,300.

“She costs us $50,000 per year and she is responsible for bringing in $500,000 per year to the department,” he said of the marketing specialist.

The Ridgefield center does permit nonresidents to apply for membership, but they pay a five percent surcharge, Mr Roche added. The center also offers residents after school programs and bus transportation for an added fee.

The center hosts five open house events per year for both members and prospects. These events may feature entertainment like magicians or face painting, animal shows, family dinners, and movie screenings. Staff also host a “senior prom” and a St Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day event for local senior center members.

Among the other points of advice given to Newtown officials on the tour was to build in plenty of closet space, especially in the multipurpose rooms.

“I wish we had 30 percent more closet space,” Ms Matthews said. They also recommended carefully assessing potential future pool usage.

“You have to generate enough activity to make the pools cost effective. That being said, our 10,000-square-foot pool is too small for our current demand,” Mr Roche said. “Decide what you want to accomplish, analyze your competition…but don’t [plan to] give everything away.”

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