As the debate has brewed about whether Lawrence should build a $25 million regional recreation center, a statistic has frequently been cited by city officials: National standards suggest Lawrence has a shortage of about 18 gyms.
It turns out, though, that that number is a bit like the score of many pickup basketball games — open to interpretation.
The national organization that created the standards the city uses says it no longer backs them as standards and now refers to them as "guidelines." No matter what they're called, the calculation of an 18-gym shortage in Lawrence appears too high. Data from the same trade organization also found that Lawrence already has more public gyms per capita than other cities its size.
City officials, though, said the new information doesn’t change Lawrence's need for more gyms.
“The primary driver in this is, what does the community want?” City Manager David Corliss said. “We have gone through a pretty good process of what the community wants, and we certainly have heard from the public that there is a deficit of indoor recreation space.”
A numbers question
How large is the deficit? An official with the National Recreation and Park Association said the standard the city has used to cite an 18-gym deficit is outdated.
“I would say that by the mid-1980s we pretty much had quit calling them standards,” said Bill Beckner, research manager for the NRPA.
The city has been quoting a statistic developed by the NRPA in the 1970s: A community should have one public indoor gym for every 5,000 residents. How that statistic has been applied in Lawrence has varied. One report commissioned by the city used the standard to estimate that the city currently has a shortage of 10 gyms.
Supporters of the recreation project have been more liberal with the statistic, at times, saying in forums that the city has a shortage of about 18 gyms for its population of 90,000-plus—and would still have a shortage of gyms even if the recreation center gets built.
The proposed recreation center in northwest Lawrence includes plans for eight full-court gyms that can be converted into 16 smaller gyms.
The city currently has three city-owned gyms at recreation centers — in the Community Building, East Lawrence and Holcom recreation centers. But the old standard also allowed public school gyms to at least partially be counted, if a city’s parks and recreation department has access to facilities, Beckner said. Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation program does use public school gyms.
That creates a lot of gray area about how large the deficit would be using the old standard. That’s one reason the NRPA quit using the standards, Beckner said.
“They got to be a point of contention rather than something that was helpful,” Beckner said.
Today, there are no set standards on the number of gyms or recreation centers a community should have, Beckner said.
But the association does have a national database that shows the average size and number of facilities for communities Lawrence’s size. That database shows that even with its current number of gyms, Lawrence already has more gyms per capita than comparable cities.
At the request of the Journal-World, Beckner ran a report showing averages for cities ranging from 80,000 to 100,000 people. The database found, on average, those communities had one recreation department-owned gym for every 87,000 people.
In other words most communities Lawrence’s size have one city-owned gym, although many cities certainly use public school gyms as well.
The database also shows that the city’s planned “regional recreation center,” at 181,000 square feet, will be much larger than most centers in similar communities. The database found the median size of a recreation center was 25,000 square feet; the largest rec centers averaged 39,000 square feet.
Emphasis on local
But Beckner said communities shouldn’t rely too heavily on any sort of national statistics.
“The idea shouldn’t be to build to any set of standards anyway,” Beckner said. “The idea should be to build according to the needs of your community.”
Lawrence officials have said their youth basketball leagues routinely fill up and a lack of gym space has shortened seasons to six games.
“That is certainly an indicator that you don’t have enough space,” Beckner said.
City officials agree with that assessment. Corliss said the city wasn’t aware that NRPA no longer was endorsing the old standards. The city provided links to Web sites of several other cities that use the standards.
“We have always felt they (the standards) were a gauge, but we never felt they should decide the issue,” Corliss said.