New Recreation Center Transforming Student Life

Spring 2011 Focus cover      From Focus magazine, Spring 2011 >>

By Bill Sutley

Columbus State University's gleaming new recreation center has been for, by and about the students since day one.

What's difficult is deciding when, exactly, "day one" occurred.

For Campus Recreation Director Rick Cravens, who frequently makes the "day one" assertion, the building started taking shape decades ago. It was on Cravens' mind when he was a Columbus College student back in the early 1980s, before he went off to Florida State for a master's and learned some colleges had more to offer in terms of recreation than eight pieces of used fitness equipment crammed into a Woodruff Gym classroom.

By contrast, the 106,000-square foot facility that opened Jan. 11 in the middle of CSU's campus has fulfilled Cravens' dreams and then some. After three months, more than 1,000 students a day, on average, are using the three-story, $23 million center's amenities, ranging from free weights to state-of-the-art fitness and aquatic centers.

Hundreds more students, visitors, faculty and staff stroll daily through the center's spacious concourse, allowing them a vantage point to check out activity in all but a few of the center's spaces.

"Students are very excited about it," Cravens said. "There's nothing in Columbus like it."

Cody clowns near Rec Center entrance.While visions of the center took shape years earlier, momentum toward opening day began picking up in early 2008, as Cravens manically shared his evolving dream, spending dozens of hours lobbying student groups and individuals, trying to persuade students to vote to pay $100 a semester for a building that most would never use.

A couple of years earlier, just after Gina Sheeks became vice president for student affairs, then-President Frank Brown called her in and charged her with moving forward with a recreation center. Until then, the idea was mostly a pipedream – fortified by a handful of elevation drawings drafted by a local company at the request of Larry Kees, Sheeks' predecessor. When Tim Mescon succeeded Brown in mid-2008, he kept the ball rolling.

Students were the key to the funding because, by state law, taxpayer money can't fund a university's non-academic building. A student vote isn't required, and many schools simply impose a fee and then administrators decide what should go into a new recreation center. Sheeks and her Student Life staff decided they wanted student buy-in. In 2008, Cravens began spending many hours with then-Student Government Association President Alex Acton sitting outside Davidson Student Center with architect's renderings on a foam board, talking to passers-by about what they might want in a recreation center.

A flash mob was part of the center's grand opening."Rick was a major force," says Acton, now working on a master's at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "He's always been great with students, but his willingness to listen was a big part of this gaining the support it needed."

Cravens got the campus Web Team to set up a special website where students could learn details about what was proposed and offer input. He organized bus trips that took student leaders to see recreation centers at Georgia State and the University of West Georgia.

He even came up with a marketing slogan: "It's gonna leave a mark." Just as an intramural sports injury might "leave a mark," his pitch was that voting for the center would allow students of 2008 to leave a mark on Columbus State.

And they have. Among the center's features:

  • An aquatic center that encompasses a five-lane, 25-yard lap pool, a "lazy river," therapy pool area and adjacent sauna.
  • Rick Cravens, campus rec director, played a key role in getting the center built.
  • A wide range of fitness classes – strength, cycling, step, kickboxing, Zumba and yoga – that are held in two movement rooms equipped, like the rest of the building with a high-tech sound system.
  • A unique 30-foot climbing wall, capable of accommodating six climbers at a time, and adjacent "bouldering" area.
  • More than two-dozen high-end Cybex weight machines, adorned with new CSU logos, displayed before a three-story glass front with a view of Lumpkin Center.
  • A separate "quiet" fitness area with another dozen weight machines.
  • A "cardio deck," featuring top-of-the-line Woodway treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical machines, rowers and steppers – most equipped with monitors that can display workout information or piped-in, student-oriented video, as well as what students might provide via a video-capable device such as an iPod.
  • Indoor track.
  • Racquetball courts.

After Mescon became president, he looked over preliminary plans for the center with Sheeks and had one question: "Where's the pool?" Concerned about budgeting, Sheeks' staff wanted an aquatic center to be part of a second phase of construction. Mescon persuaded them to reconsider and got personally involved in successfully lobbying the SGA to boost the self-imposed fee $25, to $125, to pay for the aquatic center. In return, students got a wet facility with state-of-the-art drainage, water conservation and ultraviolet filtration systems; the 240,000 gallons of water recycled through the pool every four hours are nearly on a par with drinking water standards.

"No other pool at any university I've visited has all these components in one place," said Chad Day, who interviewed for aquatic center jobs at three Division I schools before deciding to become Columbus State's first aquatics director. "They wanted to make it so everything would last."

Rec Center Fitness Director Lori Coffield leads a spinning class.

The center is already making a mark on students.

"In the beginning, we had a lot of de-conditioned people," center Fitness Director Lori Coffield said. "We're seeing some progression, some people getting fit."

Students enjoy relaxing in the aquatic center's therapy pool and pickup basketball games, in the main pool, below, or on adjacent courts.

Part of the reason has been 22 weekly "movement classes" organized by Coffield. She oversees 15 part-time student and non-student instructors holding certifications in such skills as leading popular Zumba workouts.

In all, 60 student workers keep the center humming 17 hours a day. All have been trained by Coffield and Day in CPR and the use of portable defibrillators that are available on each floor. Between them, Coffield and Day have nearly two decades of experience with YMCAs – locally for Coffield, who has an exercise science degree from Columbus State, and throughout central Tennessee for Day, who moved here from Nashville.

"There are so many possibilities here," Day said, surveying the aquatic center that nearly wasn't.

Coming to CSU meant Day could "come up with my own programs. I could essentially put safety first." All of his 10 lifeguards are certified, and he's giving them extra training – a result of his certifications with four different organizations. Initially, at least, he's focusing on safety by making swim lessons available for student non-swimmers.

The social potential of the aquatic center – featuring faux palm trees and beach-like temperatures of 85 degrees and 70 percent humidity – isn't lost on Student Life staffers and recruiters who are already planning luau gatherings for new students attending orientation. Elsewhere in the center, there's a strong hangout vibe, with many students taking advantage of wireless Internet to study at tables dotting the concourse, overlooking a massive court capable of accommodating four simultaneous pickup games.

"I'm surprised at the number of people using the facility," said Cravens. "I thought I knew a lot of people at CSU, but I've decided I don't know anybody."

He thinks the center has offered a "sense of belonging" to a lot of students – including a surprising number of commuter students.

The Rec Center's aquatic center remains busy even at night."I see it continuing to help us transform student engagement, serving as a social hub for all student populations," Sheeks said. "I think it helps promote the idea that we're an environment that's committed to health and wellness."

It's also part of what Sheeks calls Columbus State's "ongoing transition from a commuter campus," where the average student was age 27 a few years ago, "to a more traditional residential campus." Campus apartments are full, and the average student age is now 23.

Although Cravens' recreation center dream is now reality, it's clear he and his staff won't quit listening to students anytime soon – including the thousands of prospective students the center is expected to attract.

"A lot of what I like about this place is we're still taking a lot of input from students – what they want and when they want it," says student worker Tess Moore, a junior exercise science major. "I love it. I think it's one of the best things to come to campus."

Captions (top to bottom):
  • Spring 2011 Focus cover
  • Cody clowns near Rec Center's three-story entrance area during grand opening ceremony.
  • A student-led flash mob offered a surprise during the center's grand opening.
  • Rick Cravens, campus rec director, played a key role in getting the center built.
  • Rec Center Fitness Director Lori Coffield leads a spinning class.
  • The Rec Center's aquatic center remains busy even at night.