Fruita’s center of attention
City hails success of recreation, library facility after first year
If it had been up to Jim DeHart, the lot occupied by the Fruita Community Center would be nothing more than an oversized dirt patch.
The 18-year Fruita resident twice voted against a 1 percent sales tax to subsidize the construction and operation of the facility — first in April 2008 when an election on the issue ended deadlocked, then again seven months later when the tax increase passed by a 118-vote margin.
“I was definitely against it,” he said. “I just thought it was too big. I just thought a small town couldn’t afford to operate it.”
It’s been a little more than a year since the $13.7 million, 55,000-square-foot center opened its doors to a flood of eager customers. And the barrage hasn’t slowed.
The Community Center’s first year in business has been an overwhelming success by any measure, with the number of visits and revenue far exceeding projections. Expenses have outstripped the original budget, too, a fact city officials attribute to adding resources to meet the demand. Several Fruita businesses report a boost in traffic. The Fruita branch of the Mesa County Public Library District, which relocated into a new, expanded space inside the community center, experienced the greatest increase in circulation of any of the library’s eight branches last year.
Count the once-skeptical DeHart among the satisfied consumers. The 58-year-old watched one night last week as a couple of his seven grandchildren splashed in the pool.
“I’m just going to support it, and hopefully we can hang onto it,” he said. “It’s a fantastic thing for a little town like this to have such a great facility.”
Between Feb. 1, 2011, and Jan. 31, 2012, the Community Center recorded 181,393 paid visits, about 65,000 more paid visits than originally projected. Those figures don’t reflect activities such as swim lessons, dance classes and meeting-room rentals.
Total revenue, which includes the 1 percent sales tax, user fees and retail sales, neared $2 million last year, about $440,000 more than the city initially budgeted. Total expenses of $1.8 million were about $220,000 more than expected.
When it first opened, the center closed at 7 p.m. on Friday and the pool closed from 1 to 3 p.m. on weekdays for maintenance. Within a couple of weeks, though, the popularity of the pool and confusion about afternoon maintenance led Parks and Recreation Director Ture Nycum to expand Friday hours to 9 p.m., eliminate the afternoon closures and hire another batch of lifeguards.
City Manager Clint Kinney said city officials purposely were conservative in their initial estimates of how much usage and revenue the Community Center would generate because they wanted to ensure the facility could pay for itself. He said the first-year numbers prove the demand was there for the facility, the first of its kind in the Grand Valley. Now the city must meet the challenge of drawing users back year after year while also planning for the future.
The city created a reserve fund in which it can sock away surplus revenue. That money, combined with about $800,000 in initial construction savings, will help pay for future capital improvements.
“We’re setting up now for 10 years down the road,” Kinney said. “We’re in position now to be successful in the future.”
Grand Junction users
If it weren’t for the Community Center, 12-year-old Arturo Lujan figures he would still be playing basketball in his driveway and rehabilitating his right leg, which he injured a year ago, in physical therapy sessions somewhere else and at more cost. Instead, he’s practicing inside the center’s large, six-hoop gymnasium, swimming, lifting weights and riding a stationary bike at least twice a week.
“This is a really great place. I’m glad they built it,” the Holy Family Catholic School student said as he arrived with his mother, Kate, for a session with a personal trainer last week.
Fruita residents and families aren’t the only ones gaining something from the Community Center, which has drawn in users from Grand Junction, Palisade and Collbran. Some businesses have been ancillary beneficiaries of its presence.
Mike Searcy, owner of Munchies Pizza & Deli, 319 W. Aspen Ave., said the center draws people who then stay and eat lunch, have a cup of coffee and otherwise get to know Fruita. He acknowledged he was skeptical about the facility at first, in part because of its price tag. Now, he and his wife and their three kids, ages 10, 16 and 21, are customers.
“It’s definitely brought people into town,” Searcy said. “It’s been a good thing for us.”
Ann Keller, co-owner of The Hot Tomato Cafe and Pizzeria, 124 N. Mulberry St., said the restaurant noticed an immediate boost in business and a buzz about the center.
“It definitely benefited us,” she said. “We’re big fans of them.”
About the same time the Community Center opened, the Fruita branch library moved from a 1,380-square-foot single room in the Civic Center to a 7,000-square-foot multiroom facility inside the center. Circulation subsequently shot up 57 percent from 86,000 in 2010 to 136,000 last year. Community Center and library officials say the two facilities feed off of one another in a symbiotic relationship.
“That’s clearly due to a more visible location,” library spokesman Bob Kretschman said of the boost in circulation. “The Community Center project gave us a chance to put up that branch. It’s been fabulous for us.”
A club’s woes
Not everyone is thrilled with the Community Center, though.
A few blocks to the south and east of the city-run center, the privately owned Fruita Health Club, 158 N. Park Square, endured a rough 2011, as hundreds of members dropped out to join the Community Center, according to co-owner Brooke Ray.
She said the club’s membership fell from nearly 900 at the beginning of 2011 to 400 after the Community Center opened. She said it took until October for membership to begin to recover, and it now stands at about 500.
After she, her employees and their supporters crowded into City Council chambers at this time last year and accused the city of unfairly competing with private industry, Ray said she stayed in touch with council members throughout the year to keep them apprised of her business and to try to ensure the city delineated between the club and the Community Center.
The Community Center “has been good for the community,” Ray said. “We just want them to run programs that are not the same as us but different. We can maintain what we’re here for, and they can maintain what they’re there for.”
Ray said the last year gave her and other business managers an opportunity to revamp the club. She said she hired three part-time trainers to go with one full-time trainer and a part-time aerobics coordinator to strengthen those programs. The club also sent out mailers and passed out fliers at school basketball games.
With its lease up at the end of the year, the club hopes to purchase a facility or build a new club in 2013, Ray said.
“We’re not dead. We’re not going away,” she said.
With their first year behind them, Community Center operators say they won’t sit on their haunches, either. They plan to turn their attention to adding programs and activities to keep things fresh and maintain their customer base.
The city will continue a program started last fall and known as “Night at the FCC,” in which kids in grades five through eight can pay $5 on a select night and swim, play sports and dance to music provided by a deejay. Other possible programs could include activities for 4- and 5-year-olds, a Lego camp and day- and week-long summer camps.
“This operation needs to be the most entrepreneurial operation the city has,” Kinney said.
That kind of approach to running the center has thus far alleviated DeHart’s fears that the Community Center would be mismanaged.
“I’m a fairly critical person, but I can’t really find anything to criticize it over,” DeHart said. “It’s a pretty nice facility. I think there might be people who choose to live in Fruita just because that place is there.”