A Community That Plays Together Stays Together

by Carla Occaso

Photos by Chris Hancock

Photo by Chris Hancock

MONTPELIER — Recreation isn’t just about physical movement. To some people, it’s a social movement.

Montpelier seems to  be developing into a center for thriving sports participants who occasionally butt heads (such as bicycle enthusiasts versus off-leash dog walkers), but who all agree activity is important. So it is no surprise that a blow to the future of indoor recreation in town has spawned an avid group of citizen activists working with city government to keep a healthy indoor recreation facility downtown.

Why the Sudden Concern Over Indoor Recreation?

Two reasons. First of all, until last year, indoor recreation as a sports genre seemed to have a stable home and a roof over its head. People knew where to go in winter for a treadmill, spinning class, yoga, free weights, basketball or Zumba. Then, last April, city officials announced they were exploring ways to shift ownership of 55 Barre St. (still known as the Rec Center) to private hands. At the time, it was unknown just what would happen to existing programs.

Then, a few months after the 55 Barre St. announcement, First in Fitness (a general circuit exercise facility with free weights, exercise classes and a sauna) closed its Montpelier facility’s doors. The diversity of the city’s indoor exercise offerings took a big hit when this anchor point health and fitness studio shut down and consolidated up on the hill. Members had to either go to the Berlin facility or switch their routine to one of the other downtown exercise venues such as Zenith Studios or something else. And while Zenith (http://www.studiozenithvt.com/) has recently expanded to accommodate its heartfelt devotees of spinning, yoga, free weights and fitness classes, it isn’t the same as having a large generalized-use fitness center where you can just wander in off the street, crank up the television and zone out on the elliptical machine for 45 minutes.

Photo by Chris Hancock

Photo by Chris Hancock

A Call For A New Indoor Rec Establishment

With the athletic community in an uproar, Dot Helling, an athlete and retired attorney, called for a meeting. In Dot’s words, “disenfranchised members of First in Fitness and members of the swimming community have voiced a need and desire for a state-of-the-art facility. In September I spearheaded a public meeting to discuss such a project … There was a resounding cry for a recreational facility, and an indoor pool.” Dot dubbed the fledgling recreation group “Montpelier Indoor Rec and Aquatic Task Force,” or MIRA.” It turned out to be the beginning of a coalition.

Attending that September meeting was Chris Hancock. Hancock, a local parent of school-age children, basketball player and computer software designer, took on the mantle of publicist and spokesperson for an effort to create/expand. and/or preserve, either the existing programs at 55 Barre St. or some future facility — perhaps as also envisioned by Helling — with an indoor pool, free weights, a ball court, classes, games, a hot tub, sauna 

He also gave the project the fun and friendly name: “Jump and Splash,” and started a website https://jumpandsplashvt.org/.

The Bridge sat down with Hancock at the North Branch Café to hear his take on downtown recreation. Hancock looks at it from a philosophical point of view and sounds like he really cares about the positive role community recreation plays in town. The enthusiasm starts with him personally and expands out to the rest of Montpelier. He has been playing basketball a growing number of times per week. His children go there as well, and he is impressed by the variety of others who participate.

“A lot of teen boys spend time there in a healthy way,” he said. “Some older, college-age kids, older adults — different walks of life. You appreciate what each other can do, which is what community recreation should be.”

He then went on to paint a picture of various group sports aficionados who are nearly fanatical about enjoying their sports. For example: the pickleball players. Pickleball is sort of like tennis and sort of like ping pong. Players have paddles and hit a “Whiffle” type ball over a net. It is slower than tennis, and apparently quite fun.

Avid pickleball player Nancy Post told The Bridge, “I’ve been involved since the early 1990s. My husband and I both play pickleball there. It’s a great sport. Most of us are ex-tennis players. It is easier for me to play because I destroyed my rotator cuff a while ago and can’t do a tennis serve. We do a couple afternoons a week.” But you can hear her unspoken insecurity towards the future of the building when she says, “It is a great old building that has been holding up a long time and serving people for many, many years.”

In addition, there is basketball, hula-hooping and a ping pong club for middle and high school students. There is also floor hockey. But be forewarned: This activity has been known to lead to courtship and marriage. City Clerk John Odum’s office posted the following announcement last year:

“Hi neighbors! Kelly and Philip came by to get a marriage license for their wedding at the end of May. They met while playing floor hockey at the Montpelier Recreation Center. Congratulations!”

The Dream:

Photo by Chris Hancock

Photo by Chris Hancock

As The Bridge sat with Hancock, we brainstormed about where a pool could be and imagined what a new facility could look like, and perhaps got carried away when I talked about our existing outdoor pool — and Hancock suggested enclosing it under a glass dome. Wouldn’t that be cool?

But for now, it’s all talk. A project waiting for a plan.

From Helling, “I envision a new facility located centrally … near or on the bike path and easily accessed from the interstate. I envision a state-of-the-art indoor pool that caters to competitive and recreational lap swimmers, competition so as to raise income, a pleasure pool for kids and adults, and therapeutic features for seniors and those in physical therapy.” She added that there could also be other features such as a running track and climbing wall.

And this year, with an icy, arctic, unski-able outdoor weather situation driving people inside, a place for indoor recreation is important.

What Does The City Think About All This?

Arne McMullen, director of the Recreation Department, paints a strong and positive picture of the current state of downtown recreation. “People of all ages can participate in the wide range of programs our department offers and enjoy the use of the facilities we have to offer to the public both indoor and out. As we are developing through our transition of becoming a community services department working with the senior center and parks department, we are hopeful we are going to be serving our community even better,” McMullen wrote by email.    

Like Hancock, McMullen said this kind of activity helps build strong community. He also likes the idea of an indoor facility with a gymnasium and a pool “somewhere in downtown  Montpelier, where it is walkable from many areas of the city and has good access and parking.”

And the disposition of the Rec Center building has possibly stabilized as well. According to Assistant City Manager Jessie Baker, 55 Barre St. is not currently up for sale. “We explored this last year and the Council decided not to move forward after reviewing the proposals submitted. In the FY18 (fiscal year 2018) proposed budget, we have dedicated some funding to looking into how we modernize that space and bring it into ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance.  And, yes, there is a great active recreation scene there!” She wrote that the city is working with the citizen indoor recreation group, hopefully on developing a business plan and potentially a new facility. 

The Montpelier Senior Activity Center has been involved in future plans as well.

“We’ve been curious about how to look to the future because we are growing anyway,” said Janna Clar, director of the center. “I am really excited about what could evolve in Montpelier and how we, as a city department, might partner with what these private citizens can do.” Clar also mentioned how the department mergers (recreation, senior center, cemeteries and parks) were prompting staff to work together. “We are collaborating. There’s a momentum that is growing. There is a lot of real possibility.” (Clar emphasized that just because the department administration is merging, it doesn’t mean programs are merging. Children won’t attend senior yoga, for example, or run around the senior center at meal times.)

Clar also suggested surrounding towns would be willing to participate financially the way they already do at the senior center. But if you want a pool pass, or to sign up for pickleball, you go to the senior center, which is across the street from the rec center at 58 Barre St.

Participant Cynthia Hartnett summed up her experience with the programs at 55 Barre Street this way:  “I played pickleball there last winter and would be back this winter if I had not broken my shoulder. The staff are friendly and helpful. The cost is peanuts ($2.00 for 3 hours of playing pickleball for Montpelier residents). The use of a gym is important to many forms of activities and, except for the heavily booked Montpelier school gyms, there is no municipal gym facility except the Rec Center.”

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