RENU 101: Indoor playground, wellness center, gymnastics

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles to explain what projects would be funded by extending the New Ulm sales tax. The tax will be voted on in a Nov. 8 city referendum. This article focuses on changes in the New Ulm Recreation Center/Vogel Field House.

NEW ULM- A New Ulm Recreation Center/Vogel Field House project – including an indoor playground, gymnastics facility and expansion of the Wellness Center – is on the list of projects to be potentially funded by a local sales tax.

At the Nov. 8 election, New Ulm voters will be asked to approve an extension of the half-percent tax, originally approved in 2000. Through the extension, the city would fund five new projects recommended by the Reinvest in New Ulm (RENU) committee.

Former chair of the RENU committee Toby Freier said the indoor playground is a concept appearing in metro and suburban areas, but not so much in greater Minnesota.

“We have such a rich and expansive Park and Rec system, but this was a gap,” Freier said. “We have many playground facilities all over the community that for six months out of the year go unused because of the climate.”

In general, the young have limited activities available during winter months. Virginia Suker-Moldan with Turner Hall supported the indoor playground concept.

“There are lots of families that are at home during the winter, that have expressed a need for a place to go with their children,” she said.

If New Ulm creates an indoor playground, it would be the only playground of its kind in the region. The idea is in line with the RENU committee’s goal of funding projects of regional significance.

“We think this could put New Ulm on the map,” Freier said.

The hope is families from outside New Ulm will visit New Ulm for the indoor playground and stay for other amenities.

“We hear of many families doing a day trip to the metro for this sole purpose,” Freier said.

By embedding a playground inside the Recreation Center, the RENU committee hopes to create a destination for recreation. Kids could use the playground equipment while adults take advantage of the exercise equipment or racquetball courts.

“The multiple-generational aspect of the improvement is a benefit,” Park and Rec Director Tom Schmitz said. “You can have grandparents and great-grandparents bonding with grandchildren in around this playscape.”

Another possibility is incorporating short-term childcare at the facility for parents working out in the wellness center. Since childcare shortages are a continuing problem in Brown County, this is a road block for adults trying to exercise more. Many other similar facilities have been able to incorporate childcare.

It is also believed the indoor playground will be a popular attraction for existing daycare facilities during the winter.

The indoor playground could be located at several locations within the recreation campus, including the field house. The equipment could be located within the track or by the racquetball courts.

Another part of the expansion of the Rec Center is the proposed gymnastics facility. As originally proposed to the RENU committee, the gymnastics facility was planned for construction next to Turner Hall. The plan recommended to the City Council ultimately blended the facility into the Rec Center to maintain a public connection, but also to save costs by using the same infrastructure.

“New Ulm has a very rich history of gymnastics,” Suker-Moldan said. “It’s 160 years of gymnastics. It is the oldest program in the state.”

The community has outgrown the available gymnastics space despite high interest in the program. Suker-Moldan said both the New Ulm Area Gymnastic Academy (NUAGA) and Turner Hall are struggling to grow their programs due to space limitations. NUAGA is very close to not being able to hold competitions due to space, and Turner Hall does not hold competitive meets at all.

“If we can’t grow the program, where is it going?” Moldan asked.

If the gymnastics facility is built, NUAGA would dissolve and combine with Turner Hall to have a single strong gymnastics program.

The proposed gymnastics facility would be located in an addition on the north side of the Rec Center and take up 10,000 square feet. In comparison, the NUAGA facility is 4,500 square feet.

As with the indoor playground, New Ulm would have one of the few gymnastics programs in the region. No major gymnastics programs exist to the west of New Ulm. At this time, potential gymnasts are heading further east to Mankato, but with a larger facility, New Ulm could keep these athletes in this community.

In addition, gymnastics meets could be held in New Ulm and increase community revenue from visitors. With the facility in the Rec Center, out-of-town visitors could also take advantage of the other amenities in the area. The Rec Center has much of the equipment already on site.

At this time New Ulm has upward of 500 gymnasts in town, and if the two programs are combined, this number could grow.

“Gymnastics is not just for gymnasts, it is a building block to all athletics,” Suker-Moldan said. “I am looking forward to New Ulm being known for gymnastics.”

Another addition to the Rec Center would be an expansion to the existing Wellness Center.

“Presently we have two small centers: a cardio center and a strength center,” Schmitz said. “At times those rooms are filled with users, and you have to wait for a machine. This expansion would allow these machines to be co-located into one Wellness Center. The existing cardio and strength room could be converted into something else, possibly a party room or daycare rooms.”

At this time, some of the cardio equipment is located in the field house, and barbells cannot be used.

Chamber of Commerce Chair Kathy Van Roekel said the number of users is at most eight people in the strength room, and this number is often too many for comfort. For a community the size of New Ulm, extra room is needed.

By combining the cardio and strength rooms into one, those working out will be able to move from cardio exercise to a strength machine without having to cross the entire building.

“The fitness and wellness aspect of the Recreation Center is our number-one activity and our number-one revenue generator for the municipal budget,” Schmitz said.

The cost estimate for the indoor playground, gymnastic facility and Wellness Center expansion is $3.25 million.

Other projects connected to the referendum include an indoor pool, multi-purpose dome and Hermann Heights and Johnson Park improvements.

For more information on the project, Friends of RENU committee is holding meetings every Tuesday at the Southpoint Financial Credit Union conference room. The next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11. Friends of RENU will also be making a presentation at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12, in the CAST meeting room. The presentation is open to the public, with time for questions.