Every gym has its culture: its soundtrack, its clients, its sweat. But Columbia’s 9-month-old Activity and Recreation Center is not just a gym.
Depending on the hour, the day and the season, the atmosphere at the ARC is ever-changing. Early in the morning, light shoots through the windows in the semicircular foyer as older residents lace up their sneakers and stride diligently around the track in a steady stream. Before school lets out, the pool splashes with popular water aerobics classes and leisurely strokes. In the afternoon, shouts rise from the gymnasium where groups of young boys do battle on the basketball court, and a gaggle of girls giggle while chatting on cell phones in the game room.
The ARC has no single culture.
Right next door to the child-care room, a handful of adolescents plays table tennis in the arcade room. Meeting space for rent sits empty down a quiet corridor, beside the space for the tiny tots dance class and just next to the youth weight room. Beginning Sept. 15, University YMCA will again offer after-school homework help.
D.C. Griffin has just finished his short morning swim, and he has only one complaint.
“I just told them the water’s awful wet,” he quips.
Griffin was initially opposed to the ARC, convinced the city of Columbia didn’t know how to spend money. Now he thinks the city showed incredible foresight in undertaking the $11 million project and asking voters to approve it.
“I don’t know a city that’s got anything this nifty,” he says.
Four years ago Griffin, 51, was diagnosed with cancer. This year, he’s gone on the Atkins diet. He’s lost 30 pounds and swims a little every day. Now he argues on behalf of the ARC.
“To be able to access this for less than a dollar a day is absolutely incredible,” he says. “I don’t care what they say.”
At the close of its first fiscal year, operations at the ARC are right on track, says director Erika Coffman. Despite the controversy over membership fees, the ARC now has more than 8,000
memberships, well above projections. No fee increases are planned for the coming year.
Coffman expects the ARC’s hours to remain consistent as well. The first year has been a learning process, she says. Overall, she has no complaints.
“Where we can begin to look at where our down points are is from a programming standpoint,” Coffman says. “Are we maximizing our time and our space? How can we reach different people that aren’t coming in?”
This autumn will be the first for the ARC, and Coffman and her staff will continue to evaluate the effects of seasonal change on the services they offer.
“As we head into this next year,” she says, “we’ll continue making a list of what we can improve on, what we can afford to do and what we can’t afford to do. ... Just keep an eye on who our clients are and what their needs are, because that’s always going to change.”
At 59 percent, families make up the bulk of the ARC’s membership.
In the early morning hours — between 8 and 9 a.m. — the strength of the ARC’s appeal to older residents is evident. People older than 60 make up 12 percent of the ARC’s membership.
“From what I can gather, we’re the first place where they’ve ever been able to get that workout routine at this stage in life,” Coffman says of her older clients.
Attendance by daily-pass users can spike during spring breaks or inclement weather, such as the bleak Labor Day weekend.
Scholarship programs have thus far distributed more than $35,000 to Columbia families. Financial assistance, offered by the ARC and distributed through grants to programs such as EduCare’s Lend and Learn, helps youngsters buy memberships or attend classes at the ARC. Scholarship money is distributed three times a year, and eligibility is determined by household size and income.
The ARC offers meeting space for rent, and Coffman says there is plenty of space available.
“I still have a feeling there are a lot of people in the community who don’t realize what those spaces are available for, so I think when some people think recreation, they don’t see that component,” Coffman says.
Activity in the gymnasium, too, can enter a lull during pleasant weather. Though the basketball courts appeared full on a recent Saturday morning, Gary Cass said the crowd was nothing compared to what he saw when the ARC first opened.
Back in December, Cass was one of two workers maintaining the courts and controlling the kids as hundreds competed for court time. He’s had to break up a few fights, he said, but he credits the young boys with policing themselves well enough most of the time.
For the younger set, flirting is never scarce.
Tension on the courts heats up every time the girls come through the gym door. Cass and a co-worker once counted 45 girls lining the perimeter of the court. Most of the time, Cass says, they’re not dressed to play ball.
On an average day, while the youngsters are striving to impress, the older crowd placidly strolls the track above, and mellow pop tunes such as Madonna’s “Borderline” echo through the halls. Each group that comes through the door of the ARC asks to be served, and the center thus far has delivered.