CARBONDALE — As declining enrollment leaves a little more room on the tracks, StairMasters and swimming lanes at the Southern Illinois University Student Recreation Center, residents are turning out in record numbers to fill the facility up.
Community memberships reached an all-time high during Fiscal Year 2018, as did memberships sold to SIU faculty, staff and alumni, according to data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
That’s thanks to competitive pricing and a renewed focus on local marketing at the university and across Southern Illinois, said Corné Prozesky, the Rec Center’s interim director.
“There’s better community attendance than ever,” Prozesky said. ”We want to make this place a value for the community. We consider it a gateway of communication, between the university and the residents of Carbondale and neighboring towns.”
From FY 2017 to FY 2018, faculty and staff memberships increased 45 percent, to 1,370 memberships sold, while alumni memberships increased 41 percent, retired and emeritus faculty memberships rose 48 percent, and community memberships rose 37 percent.
“We’ve really been pushing our marketing in the last two years,” Prozesky said. His team hired a graphic design and social media specialist, filmed a TV commercial — now running on local stations — and updated the Rec Center’s website, allowing patrons to buy and renew memberships online.
The Rec Center also created new, “alternative” membership plans, like the senior citizen limited membership: A reduced-price plan that grants daily access to patrons 65 and over during the morning and early afternoon hours when the fewest students use the facility, Prozesky explained.
The membership has grown rapidly since it was introduced about three years ago, reaching 238 seniors in FY 2018.
“We’re trying to create value-added memberships,” Prozesky said, “offer new programming, and keep the hours as long as we can.”
In recent years, the decrease in student enrollment has caused some cutbacks at the Rec, which receives the great majority of its funding from student fees. In the fall of 2017, after a two-year budget impasse that devastated university budgets statewide, the Rec narrowed its operating hours, reduced the number of graduate assistantships it granted, and closed a satellite facility on Thompson Point.
But along with those reductions, the center has found ways to expand, developing new programs and spaces, based on fitness trends and student demands.
“There’s a big demand for mind-body wellness,” Prozesky said. “More yoga, meditation, pilates.”
One new class has attendees doing yoga in the middle of the Rec Center pool, while balancing on stand-up paddleboards. Elsewhere, members will soon be able to track their workouts with the help of heart rate monitors that connect to their phones, or to TVs throughout the gym.
Recent renovations have transformed eight of the Rec’s 16 racquetball courts into spaces for cycling, martial arts, dance and other activities.
Through it all, Prozesky, who has been at the Rec for 14 years, says he’s proud of the gym’s value.
“We have not increased membership prices in the last five years, nor student fees in the last six years,” Prozesky said. “We know every dollar counts.”
Currently, a yearlong membership for a local resident unaffiliated with SIUC will run $442, while alumni will pay $400, faculty and staff will pay $350, emeritus and retired faculty will pay $345, and current students pay about $135 per semester, charged via student fees, Prozesky said.
Exercise is costlier at the University of Illinois, in Champaign, where a yearlong membership runs $645 for those not directly affiliated with the university, $595 for alumni and $480 per year for faculty and staff.
In Marion, residents pay $480 a year, plus an $80 enrollment fee, to work out at The HUB, their $12 million, 45,000-square-foot gym, built in 2014. Joining the Carbondale Gold’s Gym will cost at least $525 this year, between membership and fees, according to the Gold’s Gym website. That includes free access to other Gold's locations around the country.
Costs at many gyms increase if a membership is paid in monthly installments, though the Rec Center remains one of the cheapest local options on a monthly payment plan.
However, some Southern Illinois residents have complained about the increasing price of day passes for nonmembers.
In the early 2000s, Rec Center members could sponsor their guests for just a $2 refundable fee. Then, the cost rose to $5, nonrefundable, leading one graduate student to write in a 2007 editorial to the Daily Egyptian, “I am appalled by all the new ways SIU is trying to extract money from its students.”
Today, a nonmember day pass costs $10.
Prozesky acknowledges day passes are expensive.
“We want people to look at the financial sense in buying a semester or annual pass,” Prozesky said, which averages about $30 a month, the cost of visiting just three times as a nonmember.
Many patrons appear to be taking the bait, as the increase in long-term memberships has been mirrored by a sharp decrease in day passes, down to 8,213 issued in FY 2018, from over 17,600 in each of FY 2014 and FY 2015.
While the 213,747-square-foot facility’s first priority will always be its students, Prozesky assures there’s plenty of space for more community members to join the gym.
“There’s absolutely more room,” Prozesky said. “This facility was designed with hopes of 30,000 to 40,000 students at SIU Carbondale, so we can handle quite a few more people.”