Outfitting Campus Fitness Centers

Two years ago, Daytona Beach Community College in Florida opened an athletic facility that included a 5,500-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art fitness center.

In February 1998, the University of Maryland, College Park, doubled its fitness center offerings with a 10,800-sq.-ft. facility designed to complement three existing centers spanning 9,500 sq. ft.

A year ago, Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., opened a 4,000-sq.-ft. fitness center.

In the continuing competition for students, community colleges, private colleges and state universities have discovered that large, well-equipped fitness centers help attract and keep students by contributing to the overall campus experience.

"Our fitness center is part of what we can do to encourage students to enroll here and part of what we can do to improve students’ stay on our campus," says William Dunne, director of health, wellness and intercollegiate athletics at Daytona Beach Community College.

Students today face the same time pressures as adults, adds Jay Gilchrist, director of campus recreation services for the University of Maryland. "A lot of our students hold down jobs while handling a full load of school work," he says. "They don’t have time for regular physical education classes. Our fitness centers provide a flexible alternative. They are open from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, making it easy for students to find time to work out."

Designed for Long Life

Each of these three fitness centers receives heavy use. Although Gilchrist does not count the students and faculty using the fitness center, he says that most of the facility’s cardio-vascular equipment operates 18 hours a day.

Tony Verde, executive director of the Dixon Center at Cabrini College, estimates that 20 to 25 people use the Dixon fitness center every open hour throughout every day.

At Daytona Beach, Dunne counts 6,000 fitness center visits per month and estimates that, at any given time, 20 people are pumping iron, pedals or stair-steppers.

The popularity of these fitness centers does not come as a surprise to their respective directors. In designing the equipment plan for these centers, each researched the work-out preferences of students and faculty members, sought advice from appropriate academic departments, attended trade shows, grilled equipment vendors, sampled the equipment and visited facilities referred by potential vendors.

Fitness center equipment falls into three categories: selectorized weight machines, free weights and cardiovascular equipment. The key to designing a center lies in assembling equipment in each category to match the preferences of users.

At Daytona Beach, for example, Dunne purchased about two dozen selectorized weight machines, a press machine, a cable cross-over machine, and a full line of free weights. For cardiovascular training, Dunne bought eight treadmills, a number of upright and recumbent workout bicycles, a variety of stair-stepper machines and several rowing machines.

"We also set up several stations for students with disabilities," Dunne says. "For example, we have an upper body ergometer, which is similar to a stationary bicycle, but you operate it with your arms. People who have limited or no use of their legs can use this kind of machine to get their heart rates up."

Gender issues also enter into center design. According to Verde, women make up 70 percent of the student population at Cabrini College. This fact proved important in the design of the college fitness center. "Women will use recumbent bikes more than men," Verde says. "Women are also more likely than men to use stair-steppers. In addition, women prefer different kinds of weight training than men. In designing a center, you have to factor in gender considerations."

Verde’s analysis led him to divide his $100,000 equipment budget into a 60 percent to 40 percent mix of aerobics and strength training equipment. "It’s important to get the right mix with your initial investment," he says. "You don’t want to have to buy new machines after a year and dispose of unused machines."

Purchasing the Equipment

Center directors agree on the importance of a well-crafted bid specification in the purchase of equipment.

"We wanted state-of-the-art equipment designed to last for years," says Dunne. "Our goal was to find equipment that would last for 10 years. For that reason, I didn’t want to write specifications based solely on price. We decided to spend more to get quality.

"From research at trade shows, I developed specifications down to the hardware level. We specified the hardware used to put the equipment together: the pulley systems that move the weights, the drives that power the equipment, the gauges of metal shells, types of pads, quality of cables, and even the paint.

"We also asked vendors to submit references. We called those customers and asked how they liked the equipment, how long they had used it, what kinds of maintenance and repair issues they encountered, and what kind of service they received."

At the end of the process, Dunne spent $185,000 on fitness center equipment, all from high-end manufacturers. "We’ve only been open for two years but, so far, we have every reason to believe that, with good maintenance, we have gotten the level of quality we wanted."

Maintenance and Operating Costs

Equipment represents only part of the cost associated with a fitness center. Maintenance and operations add substantially to budgets.

At the University of Maryland, Gilchrist allocates $160,000 per year for replacement equipment and $30,000 per year for a parts inventory. He decided against maintenance contracts with vendors and uses existing staff to look after the equipment, through a regimen of frequent inspections. "We inspect each piece of equipment at least 10 times a month," he says.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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