Built in the 1930s, the old Central School gymnasium has seen better days. Since the Lakes Area Recreation's gymnastics program left for another home a decade ago, the auxiliary gym hasn't gotten much use. LAR Director Fritz Bukowski estimates it sits idle all but 15 percent of the time.
Within a couple of months, that is about to drastically change.
At its December meeting, the LAR Board approved the purchase of $160,000 of playground equipment to create a three-level dream room for kids, chock full of open, trolley, super speed and tube slides, an obstacle run with punch bags, a tube crawl, a soft triangle climb, a pendulum walk, a ball jam room and a soft moonwalk climb.
"It will be a McDonald's on steroids," Bukowski said, referring to the play areas located in some of the fast food restaurants.
Filling a need
This past year Bukowski began trying to figure out how to better use the old gym, located in the Douglas County Services Center along with the LAR offices at 720 Fillmore Street.
"I was looking at that space and realized that gym is not used a lot," he said. Its usage had dropped with the building of the new high school, and Bukowski thought, "What if we put an indoor playground in there?"
Indoor playgrounds have been adopted by parks and recreation departments in other cities, where they've been a runaway success. Eagles Nest in New Brighton, one of a half-dozen playgrounds at rec centers Bukowski and two others toured, have had lines of people on Saturdays that stretch about 80 yards down a hallway and out the door, he said.
"There's definitely a need for it," he said.
That was proven by the results of a community needs assessment, with a survey of 1,690 respondents from the area listing an indoor playground among their top five. Bukowski has also heard from parents who have taken their kids to the Twin Cities or Detroit Lakes to use playgrounds in those areas. Now they won't have to travel for such an experience.
In addition to getting a first-hand look at other operations, Bukowski also saw how much revenue indoor playgrounds of this type produce. Detroit Lakes built one in 2011, and he said it has been a big hit with residents, and a financial success, too. The same has been true in Fargo.
In September he took the idea to the LAR board, which consists of two members apiece from the city of Alexandria, the Alexandria School District and the townships of Alexandria and LaGrand. A business plan was assembled, a company that has designed numerous playgrounds was contacted to work up drawings, and the board gave its go-ahead last week.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for us and the city. I'm excited about it. The staff is excited, and we're working through all of the logistics," Bukowski said.
A padded playroom
Those plans include the hiring of a birthday coordinator, since indoor playgrounds are extremely popular places to hold children's birthday parties. Three spaces with tables and chairs will be carved out on the 50-by-80-foot gym floor for youth or church groups or birthday parties to meet for up to two hours at a time, with ready access to the playground equipment.
A separate area for toddlers will make for a safe space for preschoolers.
"It's a great design. I like it a lot," Bukowski said, noting there are multiple slide opportunities and multiple climbing opportunities for children. The entire 17-foot-high playground is padded, with 10 entrances.
Plans are for the playground area to be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day during the school year, with the possibility of reduced summer hours. The equipment will be disinfected and cleaned each morning, on the advice of other facilities and the equipment maker.
Costs are expected to be $6 per child per day, with no time limits, and a $50 punch card would reduce the cost by $1 per visit. Group rental for events would be $100, which comes with 10 playground passes. Preschoolers, for example, who use the playground in the morning could return in the evening with the same wristband, since the pass will be good all day.
"We really want to make it as affordable as possible for the community, for young families to have a place to go with their kids," Bukowski said.
The playground's capacity will be 140, and when it is reached no one will be allowed in until others leave. Bukowski can envision a line forming on weekends that would extend through the main gym out through the hallway. "That might not be out of the realm of possibility," he said.
Based on information he has gleaned from other parks and rec departments and using conservative numbers, he believes the playground will pay for itself within three years.
To make room for the playground, Junior Olympics volleyball will be shifted to the adjoining larger gymnasium. Pickleball will also be shifted to the larger gym, and while the three courts are one less than the current arrangement, the larger gym will be open for pickleball play five days a week, two more than is the case now.
A crew is expected to install the equipment in time for the playground to open by the first or second week of February, and on those winter days parents who are looking to get their kids out of the house and let them play will have a new option.
"For the area, there is no other indoor playground of this magnitude, and it's going to be a fantastic place for families to bring their young kids," Bukowski said, adding that a common complaint is there's a lack of places to bring children. "This is actually filling a gap that exists at this time."