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Making a Profit in Nonprofit
Recreation Centers

A survey by Burnidge Cassell and Associates finds "bigger is not
always better" for financially successful community centers


Non-profit recreation centers are facing many challenges today to remain successful and profitable beyond the initial period that the facility opens or after the "newness" wears off. These challenges include growing and maintaining membership along with fulfilling their patrons' needs for quality programming and facilities.

We all know that everyone wants to receive the best value and service and that includes membership and programs at a recreation center. So what are the factors that contribute to delivering what the customer wants while operating a profitable recreation center? What are the spaces and programs that have sustained revenue exceeding expenditures to produce a revenue surplus?

Most people involved in park and recreation have varying thoughts and data on what contributes to making their facility successful and profitable, so we asked them. Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc.'s recent survey on "Profitable Community/Wellness Centers" gathered information from Illinois park and recreation directors and administrators to reveal factors that affect their success.

Lessons learned from this survey show that you don't have to be a mega facility in size to be successful, although today's tendency is to think that bigger is better.

Plugged In
Think 30 to 85
Almost two-thirds of the survey participants (63%) have facilities that are between 30,000 to 85,000 square feet. One-quarter (25%) have facilities less than 30,000 square feet, while the remaining 12% reported facilities above 85,000 square feet. Almost two-thirds (62%) of these facilities were constructed since 1990. Half (50%) report having between six to ten full-time staff, while (38%) operate their facilities with one to five full-time staff. More than 43% of the facilities have received an addition and or remodeling since originally constructed.

Can you be profitable with a 100,000-square-foot recreation center? Yes, according to Mark McKinnon club manager of the 110,000-square-foot Homewood-Flossmoor Racquet and Fitness Club. This facility is an enterprise fund or a profit center for the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, which means it doesn't use any tax money and is revenue-generating to the extent the surplus pays for the debt retirement and facility operating costs.

One of the key ingredients is the park district's partnership with a local hospital.

Says McKinnon: "The health care provider not only pays rent, they also paid for the related construction of the addition to provide this space including a fitness center expansion."

January/February 2001 / 33

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Therapeutic programs—which was identified by the park district as the number three reason patrons use the facility—include a wellness center, home health care, offices, a dietitian, acupuncture, cardiac rehab and aquatic therapy.

Conduct Surveys
Of the survey participants, a large majority (63%) have conducted a program interest membership survey within the last five years. An overwhelming majority (75%) have conducted at least one program interest survey. Approximately one-third (31%) of the participants conduct a membership survey every two to three years, while 13% noted that surveys were distributed once every four to five years. The average response rate to these surveys range from 15% to 49%. Improvements are needed on the frequency of conducting surveys to ask the community and members what their interests and needs are to aid recreation professional. Staying ahead of the curve is one key to success.

Approximately one-third of the survey participants (39%) noted that their membership was less than 1,000, with 23% reporting membership between 1,001 and 2,000. A smaller percentage (16%) report having memberships between 2,000 to 4,000, while one-quarter (22%) report membership above 4,000.

Men comprise the largest membership group, closely followed by female memberships at second. Family memberships were identified as the number three membership category. Corporate, junior, and youth memberships reported the lowest of all the membership categories. Although men represent the highest membership group today, our aging population may change this trend and affect the programs we know today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2025 the elderly population will grow to 50% more than today.

Exercise, instruction and recreation / leisure
More than half of the survey participants (56%) reported the number one reason patrons use their recreation center is for exercise. Slightly under two-thirds (63%) noted that instructional classes are the number two reason patrons use their recreation center, with recreation / leisure programs (25%) rounding out the number three spot.

Fitness, dance and gym
Half of the participants (50%) agree that fitness centers are the number one revenue-producing program space in their facility. More than one-third (38%) noted that aerobics/dance programs are the second most profitable, with gymnasiums (25%) noted as the third most revenue-producing space. Tom Mammoser, director of the Dundee Township Park District, says that gymnasiums can be very profitable, especially when used by pre-school children during the school day for active classes. And, as we know, if the children are happy so are the parents which equals a satisfied patron.

What about daycare?
The Dundee Township Park District recreation center was originally designed to include a daycare program to offset the operating costs of the facility. As it turned out, it took several years before realizing what was initially though to be an automatic revenue program.

"The amount of labor makes it very challenging and it needs to be fully investigated before an agency enters into providing daycare," says Mammoser.

Speaking with experience, the park district's recreation center has a capacity of 70 children with four dedicated classrooms. The children's age group ranges from two to six and the daycare facility is operated Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Approximately 14 staff—of which eight are full-time—operate the daycare facility alone with as many as 12 staff on-site during midday with two staff per room as mandated by the state along with a full-time manager.

When asked for an opinion if a daycare facility should be included at a new facility, the answer was no. The reason: not enough return on the investment for the people and required facility space along with factoring in the demands of new programs faced by all recreation professionals.

What to increase?
An overwhelmingly majority (69%) agree that fitness centers are the number one space they would increase at their facility. Since fitness centers are the number one revenue program, this comes as no surprise. The second space survey participants noted that they would increase are gymnasiums/field houses (31%), with multipurpose rooms and pre-school program space (19%) coming in equal at number three.

Indoor vs. outdoor
Of the survey participants, half (50%) have indoor pool/aquatic facilities. Of those that reported having indoor pools, only one-quarter (25%) have revenues that exceed expenditures to produce a revenue surplus. A majority (63%) reported facilities that support a bather load of 200 people with the largest bather load accommodating 400 people. Most pool/aquatic facilities are relatively new with three-quarters (75%) being built since 1990. Less than one-third (29%) reported operating an indoor pool at a profit.

More than one-third (38%) reported having an outdoor pool/aquatic facility. In contrast to the indoor facilities, outdoor facilities reported that the majority

34 / Illinois Parks and Recreation

MAKING A PROFIT IN NONPROFIT RECREATION CENTERS                                          

(80%) report revenues that exceed expenditures to produce a revenue surplus. Unlike the indoor facilities, the bather loads are significantly higher. No one reported a bather load less than 200, while 17% reported 201 to 400 bathers, half (50%) can accommodate 400 to 1,000 bathers, and the remaining 33% reported bather loads above 1000. The majority (86%) of these pool/aquatic facilities were built since 1980. The survey participants with bather loads larger than 1,000 reported their facilities were built since 1989. Over three-quarters (80%) reported operating an outdoor pool/aquatic facility at a profit.

Final analysis
Now that you have read all of the statistics from our survey, we want to step back from the numbers to see the big picture. Our survey findings and analysis of the survey participants reveal the following trends:

• The total square footage of the facilities ranged from 900 to 120,000 with an average of 53,725.

• The average full-time staff working at a recreation facility is 9 to 10 people.

• Recreation center memberships ranged from 76 to 4,100 with the average being 1,577.

• Half (50%) of recreation centers have an indoor pool/aquatic facility with only 29% reporting revenues exceeding expenditures to produce a revenue surplus or profit.

• The average indoor bather load ranges from 200 to 400.

• More than one-third (38%) of the recreation centers have an outdoor pool/aquatic facility and more than three-quarters (80%) reporting revenues exceeding expenditures to produce a revenue surplus or profit.

• The majority (83%) of outdoor pool/aquatic facilities have bather ranging from 401 to more than 1,000.

Lessons learned from this survey show that you don't have to be a mega facility in size to be successful, although today's tendency is to think that bigger is better. Remember to tailor your facility size to meet the needs of your service population, conduct program interest surveys every one to two years, investigate partnerships to maximize programs and benchmark your facility against others to help put you on the road to being more successful and profitable. •

Daniel R. Alilano, AIA
is principal and recreation team leader at Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc. Founded in 1968, Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc is a full-service architectural firm specializing in park and recreation design services from planning through construction. Located in Elgin, Illinois, the firm's services include planning studies, architectural design, interior design, landscape architecture and land planning services. For further information, contact Atilano 847.695.5840 or

January/February 2001 / 35

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