Colleges constructing hugh spas to attract students Building the student body

March 31, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

The University of Maryland College Park has figured out what it needs to become a top-rank draw: an outdoor swimming pool, a sauna and a quarter-acre of weight-lifting equipment.

Those are just some of the amenities in a massive recreation center planned for the state's flagship campus. The $36 million Taj Mahal of campus health clubs will feature three gymnasiums, 14 squash and racquetball courts and three swimming pools.

Though the College Park project is one of the most expensive in the nation, it is by no means unique, as colleges compete for a dwindling number of high school graduates. At least eight other Maryland schools -- and many more across the country -- have built exercise centers in the last few years or are planning them.

"It promotes a healthy lifestyle as opposed to the fraternity parties and alcohol abuse seemingly all campuses are trying to get away from," said Jay Gilchrist, director of recreation at College Park.

With students focusing on fitness, an exercise center has become a necessity in the dog-eat-dog world of student recruitment.

"It becomes something we need for our marketing," said Mark Kelly, spokesman for Loyola College, which has made a new recreation facility the No. 1 priority. "To sell the place, we have to be able to say, yeah, we have a weight room."

Elsewhere around the state, recreation buildings are planned for the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Others were ahead of the pack. Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg opened one several years ago, followed by the College of Notre Dame and Goucher College in Baltimore and Washington College in Chestertown.

Western Maryland College in Westminster couldn't afford a new building but did renovate its weight room to make it an up-to-date fitness center.

At Loyola the demand is so great at two small recreation centers that students at peak hours have to wait as long as half an hour to get 20 minutes on a stair-step machine.

"With all the stress on campus, students are bouncing off the walls," said Susan Donovan, Loyola's dean of students.

Over the next few years, Loyola hopes to raise money to build an 88,000-square-foot, $16 million facility at Cold Spring Lane and Charles Street.

Mount St. Mary's trumpets its Knott Athletic Recreation Convocation Complex in its promotional materials: "Imagine getting a free membership to an $11 million fitness club," one brochure boasts.

"Clearly, colleges in what has increasingly become a buyers' market have had to look at what they can do to have a competitive edge," said Frank A. Buhrman, a Mount St. Mary's spokesman. "We can bring people in here for a campus visit and show them something that will probably impress them."

Besides students, the center accommodates several hundred fee-paying members from the outside community, which generates income for the college, Mr. Buhrman said.

Two years ago, Washington College opened a $5 million fitness building featuring a sauna, exercise rooms and a dance studio.

"It's really impressive," said college spokeswoman Meredith Davies. "It's huge. The big joke in town is that it's even bigger than the Super Fresh."

After more than 15 years of discussion, College Park is moving ahead with its center, which will be financed through student activity fees.

Slated to open in 1997, the huge building will have 281,000 square feet of space -- the equivalent of five football fields -- making it one of the biggest in the nation.

It will dwarf even the two-year-old Bobby E. Leach Student Recreation Center at Florida State University, which services 3,000 students a day in a 118,000-square-foot facility with

$500,000 worth of workout equipment.

"It's become the meeting place on campus," said Florida State recreation director Paul Dirks Jr. "In a state where the drinking age is 21, it's a viable alternative to the strips of bars."

Goucher's $7 million recreation center, a stone building flooded with natural light and featuring a pool, racquetball courts and workout areas, rivals any private health club.

"I take it for granted," Goucher freshman Christine Simeone said this week, shrugging, as she prepared for her daily workout.

Since it opened in 1991, Goucher's center has been a key to increasing the college's sagging enrollment, campus spokeswoman Leslie Lichtenburg said.

"I think it's a nice drawing card for people," she said. "Athletics is a part of college life, now more at Goucher than ever before."

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