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Published November 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Choices at Choice Health & Fitness drive growth

GRAND FORKS – Choice Health & Fitness’ name comes from the financial institution that paid $3 million for the naming rights to the Grand Forks facility.

By: Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS – Choice Health & Fitness’ name comes from the financial institution that paid $3 million for the naming rights to the Grand Forks facility.

However, the name also suggests why the fitness center has greatly exceeded its membership expectations. So say the likes of Laura Spicer, a Grand Forks mother of four.

“There are so many choices here,” Spicer said last week as she cradled sleeping 4-month-old Hudson while retrieving the basketball for 5-year-old Gunner in the gym.

“They named it well,” she said.

Twice a week, the two boys go to Choice’s day care while mom works out with weights and an exercise bike for an hour. Then it is their time to play, on the court or in the pool. Daughters Gabriella, 9, and Magdalene, 7, use the indoor tennis courts.

“Kids get bored so easily that it’s nice to have choices for them,” said Spicer, who was a two-time state high-school tennis champion when she was Laura Bohlman.

“And it’s a nice environment to work out in for me,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re working out because it is so clean and open.”

Mike and Jenny Arel, of Grand Forks, have a similar experience with their children, Jake, 14, Connor, 11, and Jadyn, 8.

“It’s totally a family thing for us,” Jenny said. “Four or five times a week, we come here as a family and take in everything. I no longer feel bad about working out at night because the kids come with us.

“And it’s nice that they’re not sitting in front of a TV.”

Membership boom

The likes of the Spicers and the Arels are why Choice is three years ahead of schedule for memberships.

Choice and its partner, the Altru Y Family Center, had a combined 10,907 members as of Friday. The partnership’s business plan calls for 11,350 members by the end of 2015.

Choice manager Cam Tweten said reaching the 2015 goal by the end of this year should not be a problem because Choice is adding about 20 members per day.

Although the facility’s newness and novelty is driving memberships, it’s not the historical prime time for signups. “The big push for memberships comes with New Year’s resolutions,” Tweten said.

Membership growth isn’t the only change in the park district-owned fitness facility. Member demographics are different, too.

At Center Court, the former park district facility, only 5 percent of memberships were for families. At Choice, 70 percent are.

That is a product of having a pool, walking/running track, basketball courts, tennis courts and other activities for youth. “If they weren’t in tennis, we didn’t have a lot to offer the youth of our community at Center Court,” Tweten said.

The memberships are being used, too, as average daily attendance at Choice is 2,400, five times what it was at Center Court. That attendance number doesn’t include non-members who are using Choice for private lessons for tennis, swimming and basketball.

Monthly memberships cost $73 for a family, $53 for an individual and $20 for children grade 12-under.

Dickinson’s model

The West River Community Center, a Dickinson, N.D. park district-operated facility that opened in 2004, was used as a model for replacing the undersized and out-of-style Center Court.

Dickinson residents passed a half-cent sales tax to subsidize West River for up to $300,000 a year. However, the subsidy has never been needed because of its popularity, so the sales tax money has been funneled to other purposes.

“We built our membership fees based on the anticipation of getting 1,750 members, and we had 4,200 when we opened our doors,” said James Kramer, Dickinson Parks and Recreation director.

“We were absolutely surprised by how many signed up,” he said. “A lot of the people who fought it were also the ones who have expressed the most pleasure with it.”

Memberships now number 6,100 in the city of 22,000 – about 28 percent of residents. The dual memberships with Choice and the Y are at 18 percent of residents in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn.

“Those are unbelievable numbers for a start-up,” Kramer said of the 18 percent.

Kramer and Kevin Boe, the manager of Courts Plus Fitness Center in Fargo, said having a wide range of options is the key to a fitness center’s success.

“We have a lot of similar things to Grand Forks,” Kramer said.

“We each have a lap pool and leisure pool, tennis courts, basketball courts, complete fitness workout areas and a walking/running track on the second level.”

Boe said new fitness clubs are like new restaurants: “Everyone wants to try out the new place.” But he said Choice has more going for it than its newness.

“I’m not surprised at all by their startup memberships because it’s a beautiful place with activities that cover all ages and interests,” Boe said.

Kramer said an emphasis on fitness is also a cultural change, citing Williston, N.D., recently breaking ground on a $70 million facility – triple the cost of Choice – and Mandan, Bowman and Watford City, N.D., talking about building their own.

Ryan Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald