West Chicago Park District residents are used to taking their indoor recreation opportunities where they find them.
They've participated in dance and early childhood programs in an old bank, worked out on fitness equipment housed in a former hardware store and shot hoops during off-hours in gyms at area schools.
It's hardly the end of the world, mind you, but it's not exactly a state-of-the-art experience, either.
All that will change in the coming week when the park district takes the wraps off its sparkling new 70,000-square-foot indoor recreation center -- built on time and on its $15.5 million budget -- at 201 W. National St. in Reed-Keppler Park, just a short walk from Turtle Splash Water Park.
Called the ARC Center (for Athletics, Recreation, Community), the sprawling one-story facility will offer a three-court gym, a multipurpose activity court, a fitness center, an indoor track, an indoor playground and more. If it doesn't knock the gym socks right off your feet when you walk through it for the first time, park officials will be a little disappointed.
"West Chicago has not had an indoor recreation center -- ever," Executive Director Gary Major says.
This one, park officials hope, should make up for the long wait.
Opening day events
Residents have been watching the ARC Center take shape since the groundbreaking ceremonies in August 2013, but they can get their first official look during a grand opening celebration scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6.
The event will start with the usual speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony and then include tours, demonstrations and even a basketball clinic that starts at 11 a.m. conducted by former Chicago Bull Charles Oakley, who also will sign autographs.
After the coming-out party, the center will close again to give park district staff members time to add some last-minute touches before it reopens for good at 5:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 8.
Major admits to some pre-opening butterflies.
"I lie awake in bed at night and think, 'God, I hope somebody shows up,'" he says with a laugh.
He probably doesn't need to worry. This is the fourth recreation center Major has had a hand in building -- he's worked on similar facilities in Elk Grove Village, Niles and Orland Park -- and he's pretty sure none of them involved more planning and preparation than the one in West Chicago.
Park officials really took their time, he says, and sweated every last detail, from checking out more than 150 carpet combinations to selecting the tempered glass fronts for the lockers.
The result is what Major thinks is the largest one-story recreation center in the state.
Even now, it's hard for him to pick out his favorite feature of the building. Maybe it's the three-court, wooden-floor gym. Maybe it's the 24-foot-high indoor playground. Maybe it's the indoor track.
Ah, geez, all that stuff's going to be great, he says, but he's most excited about the 8,000-square-foot fitness center, complete with cardio equipment with individual TVs, ellipticals, treadmills, recumbent and upright bikes, a rowing machine, free weights and on and on.
Take a look at the equipment the fitness center offers, at the ambience, at how attractive and bright the whole thing is and some pride seeps into Major's voice.
"I don't think there's another fitness center out there that compares to it," he says.
No easy path
The president of the West Chicago Park District board, Frank Lenertz, was first elected in 1972. That's not a typo: he's been serving the district for 42 years.
So when he says construction of the ARC Center "has been a long time in the making," he knows what he's talking about.
The district started seriously considering an indoor rec center back in 1993, he says, but the board of commissioners rejected the idea in a 3-2 vote.
In hindsight, he says, that probably was for the best because the facility the board was talking about back then would probably be hopelessly outdated by now.
As recently as the spring of 2012, park district voters rejected a referendum request for $19.6 million to build a rec center near Washington and Fremont streets in downtown West Chicago.
Park officials still were licking their wounds from that defeat when Lenertz says they started hearing from residents "urging us to go again."
In November of that year, park officials went back to voters with a scaled-back plan that was not only $4 million cheaper, but also called for the center to be built in Reed-Keppler rather than downtown.
It's unlikely anyone was more skeptical about the change than Lenertz.
"I was totally wrong on that," he says now. "I didn't want to overdo it at Reed-Keppler Park, but the community told me I was wrong and I thank God they did.
"I'm excited about what this building can do for the community, and I'm excited about what it can do for our staff," he says. "I think we're going to be the envy of the block."
A healthy city
Park district patrons and officials aren't the only ones excited about the new rec center -- so is the business community.
David Sabathne says he appreciates the center's potential value from at least two angles: one as a board member of the Friends of West Chicago Parks Foundation and the other as president of the Western DuPage Chamber of Commerce.
He says the facility fits perfectly with the city's recent Healthy West Chicago Initiative.
"It will help get people excited for making healthy choices and exercising," he says, and that will pay long-term dividends by creating both a healthier community and a healthier workforce.
"For a community to attract and retain quality employees, you have to offer these kinds of amenities," Sabathne says.
You can talk all you want about the quality of a city's infrastructure, he says, but in the end it's things such as the ARC Center that will lure people to town and keep them once they arrive.
Placing the center in Reed-Keppler Park was an inspired choice, he says. Put a top-notch facility in a popular, centrally located spot, he says, and you've created an ideal community meeting place.
For a park district used to offering indoor programs in borrowed or leftover space, these are heady times.
But Major has been through enough of these projects to know that building the ARC Center is one thing and making sure it operates efficiently is another. He says everyone involved is likely to learn some lessons before the end of the year, and some changes almost certainly will be necessary.
"Getting this center to work is the next big project," he says. "It takes six months to develop a rhythm for the building."
But that's for a time down the road. For now, everything is shiny and new and Major and his staff are gearing up for opening day to see how residents react.
"We hear there's a lot of excitement in the community," he says. "We'll find out on Sept. 6."