Elijah Watkins takes a shot as he shoots around with Earl Watkins and Phillipp Williams at Moorhead Recreation Center on August 8 in Aurora. Renovation of the space made it 10 times bigger. (Seth McConnell/YourHub)

Colorado city gets community boost as pot taxes help propel opening of new rec center

Aurora's $16 million project, with $4 million coming from marijuana taxes, aims to serve residents of all ages

A collection of black-and-white photos is all that remains of the original Moorhead Recreation Center in north Aurora. In them, kids play baseball and swim in the pool at the 42-year-old center. These aren’t 3-by 3-inch images in a photo album, however. The images are several feet tall and adorn the walls of the city’s newest full-service recreation center.

“It’s like home again, but bigger,” said Jennifer Taylor, longtime program assistant at Moorhead Recreation Center. “They really put a lot of time into this place, it’s not just a bigger building. It has heart. It has become something that our community members are really proud of.”

The old youth drop-in center measured about 4,000 square feet. It was torn down last year and replaced with a 41,000-square-foot recreation center that reopened June 8 after an 18-month reconstruction. The $16 million project — funded by $4 million in marijuana revenue tax money and the rest by other city funds — added a three-court gymnasium, community rooms, a teaching kitchen, an indoor aquatic center with water slide, new locker rooms and a state-of-the-art fitness center.

“All of the cardio equipment that we got has its own TV that gets YouTube and Netflix and Comcast and Facebook,” said Byron Fanning, Aurora’s recreation manager. “Our community meeting room alone is the same size as our old gym. It has an entire wall of glass garage doors that open up onto the patio outside. You can have a heck of a party here.”

The long-awaited renovation aims to serve residents of all ages.

“Before, we had one adult Zumba class in the gym, but because of the space limitations we would have to kick everyone out of the gym when it was time for class, and then those kids didn’t really have anywhere to go,” Taylor said. “Or sometimes, we’d send the Zumba class over to (Fletcher Community School across the street) so the kids could keep the gym. But now there’s room for everyone.”

Previously, Aurora had one recreation center with a pool, gymnasium and dedicated workout space — Beck Recreation Center at 800 Telluride St. The other four community recreation centers served only one or two of those needs.

A demographics survey started in 2010 by the Aurora Residents for Recreation Task Force, revealed the city lacked indoor recreation space — it averaged 0.44 square feet per capita compared to about 1.7 square feet per capita for the rest of the metro area. That totaled about 400,000 square feet of needed recreation space, city leaders said.

Another facility, Central Recreation Center, is under construction. By next year, the city will have added 85,000 square feet of recreational area. And recreation leaders expect few idle hours

Membership and drop-in visits at the Beck Recreation Center have totaled more than 70,100 since January, an increase of 37 percent, or 19,251 entries, over the same period in 2016.

“Attendance has tripled in the last four years,” Fanning said. “It used to be that you could fire off cannon at Beck and not hit anyone, and now it’s so busy that even the regulars who have been coming there for years are, like, ‘Wow, this place is packed.’ It’s truly amazing how much busier it is.”

He attributes that growth to a drop in fees. Since 2014, the fees at Beck center have been cut more than 50 percent.

“Our mission is to encourage active lifestyles, and we had our prices set up so high that the average person couldn’t really afford it,” Fanning said. “It was $450 for one adult membership. Now, here at Moorhead, a kid can get a full year’s membership for $50. We lowered all of our prices across the board in anticipation for this opening, and as a result, we’ve seen participation just mushroom.”

The drop in pricing, combined with the excitement surrounding the revamped and expanded Moorhead center, has bumped the city’s recreation revenue considerably.

“Our revenue budget for Moorhead previously was $11,000 a year, and we couldn’t even make that,” Fanning said. The revamped center made more in its first 10 days than the old center did in all of 2015, he said.

Fanning said community members came in, dropped their jaws and immediately bought memberships.

“We had a couple kids come in here and just start crying,” he said “These are teenagers, too — regulars who have been coming here since they were little kids. They couldn’t believe how different it was and how much more they have.”

Sergio Castro, 9, was one of those awe-inspired kids.

“I used to come to the old rec. center, but it was boring, and so I didn’t stay all the time,” Castro said. “I like this one better because we have computers and a place to work out and a place to play games and go swimming. I come here after school all the time.”

“Everything is better,” said Quidman Flemings, 11.”The basketball court is the best thing, for sure. It’s just better because it’s bigger.”

“The big reason this got done is the community,” Fanning said. “They worked together with us and with the Stapleton Foundation and came together and said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ and we did. We pulled every penny together in hope that this would happen, hoping that is would lead to more, and that’s exactly what it’s done.”

Moorhead Recreation Center:
Address: 2390 Havana St.
Hours: 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Drop-In: $3 youths (ages 2-17), $3.50 young adults (ages 18-26), $4 adults (ages 27-61), $3.50 seniors (ages 62 and older)
Memberships: Center-specific and citywide plans available, see www.auroragov.org/Moorhead
Contact: 303-326-8315

This story was first published on DenverPost.com