Lessons Learned While Building A Community Center

Last week The Community Center at Chatham opened to the public after three years of planning, praying, and building. Reaction to the building was amazing, and ranged from “Wow” to “Now we can have exercise classes here.” Everything about this project went extremely well, and moved quickly. But, I did learn some things in the process, and here’s what I’ve gleaned so far:

  1. Be prepared for criticism. When we were awarded $3-million to build the community center, I thought everyone would be thrilled. Most were, but some very vocal opponents were quick with their criticism. Be prepared for criticism when you undertake any community-wide project.
  2. Get all the help you can. We hired a top-notch architectural and engineering firm, a good contractor, and our board made a lot of decisions. One person could not have pulled this off, and I called on the expertise of board members, design professionals, and others every step of the way. The best money we spent was to pay the architectural firm to manage the project and review all materials the contractor used. Some suggested we manage the project ourselves, which would have saved us thousands of dollars. But, it might have cost us tens-of-thousands of dollars in bad decisions.
  3. Know how you will use the building before you design it. One of my favorite movie lines is from Field of Dreams when Ray Kinsella hears the voice tell him, “If you build it, they will come.” That’s a great line, but building it isn’t enough. You have to know why you’re building it. In our case we knew the Boys and Girls Club would be the anchor program, so we designed the building to be managed by two people with clear sight lines into all rooms. Form does indeed follow function.
  4. Develop use policies prior to opening. We’re behind on this, but we’re catching up fast. We were so focused on building the building that we lagged behind on use policies. Fortunately, we’re closed for a couple of weeks to put in the gym floor, so we’ll catch up before we re-open.
  5. Think about staffing and funding. We decided that we could not run the building with volunteers alone, so we hired an interim director and will add part-time staff later. But we will use lots of volunteers to round out our staffing. We’re also raising money (we raised $26,000 at our gala grand opening dinner); we believe operating expenses will run $8-10,000 per month. That’s a lot of money to raise, but we plan a combination of individual and corporate donations, grants, user fees, and rental fees. I’ll let you know how this works as we move forward.

Someone asked me several weeks ago if I would do this all over again. The answer is “Yes” because the Center has already exceeded our expectations. But, I did learn some things, and next time it will be easier. I hope.

29 thoughts on “Lessons Learned While Building A Community Center”

  1. I’m impressed how things turned around for you. God is good, all the time. Continue to do God’s will, and the rest will follow. Thank you ! -Lorenzo

  2. I am looking for any historical legislation
    on Federal Government cooperating with
    the “community centers” in our country.
    Has State money contributed to your efforts
    to build such a center?

  3. Anthony, sorry to be so long in replying to your comment. No, we do not receive any federal, state, or local funds to build or operate the center. We get revenue from fundraising projects, user fees, rental fees, and grants from private foundations.

  4. Hi. I sm trying to buy property with an existing building on it, add to it, and create a community rec. center where i live (none exists). I have no idea where to begin with grant opportunities and donations? any suggestions?

  5. If you haven’t already done so, you need to form a 501-c-3 non-profit corporation. This requires an application to the IRS. Most granting organizations require that grant recipients be IRS-recognized non-profits. Then, I would begin to explore local foundations, and local government grants. That’s where we got our funding. Also, there are federal grants for daycare, Headstart, etc, as well as adult daycare, and physically/mentally-challenged care. Form a community steering committee, get some people working with you, and let them buy into the concept. Share your vision and others will help you. Good luck!

  6. Congratulations. I was wondering if there were any books or articles you read that gave you ideas along the way.

  7. I’m working on a project for my Technical Communications class that involves designing a computer lab for a community center. I need to come up with four basic desgin plans. I’m not real sure where to start. How did you decide where or from whom to get the computers? How did you decide on the system specs for the computers and the kind of software that would be available to use? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  8. The church I attend is looking into doing the very same thing, but we’re finding difficulty in locating funding. How did find funding?

  9. Looks like I missed a couple of commenters, and my apologies to your Cristina and Brent. I’m sure you’ve figured out what you need to know by now.

    As to the funding issue, we received a $3-million grant from a local foundation, which was an unusual event. But there are a variety of funding approaches, and many groups have used combinations of grants, donations, gifts of land and property, etc to put together enough to build and run a center. Hope that helps.

  10. I am in the infancy stages of building a community center. I’m trying to get ideas to incorporate into my business plan?

  11. Our church has been serving the community for 30 years or more. We are at the point we want to reach out to the community via a community center. We have looked at some initial demographics and believe that through prayer and need this is the right time to start the campaign to build.

    I am interested in the what research you did, what tools you used, and how you completed the research to determine the size, activities, staffing needs, salaries, and operational cost.

    We would be most grateful for sharing your experience.

    1. Michael, my apologies for being so long to reply. The first thing we did was actually start programs before we even considered building a new building. We partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to start an afternoon club in our church. Our church building did not have a gym, but we set up portable basketball goals in our parking lot during the week. We also started a community music school, hosted family movie nights, and did some other stuff to see if anybody wanted it. We then applied for a grant to build and furnish the building. We were awarded the grant, and were told that if we had not already started the programs, we would not have gotten the grant. So, my first advice is start what you can now.

      Secondly, we didn’t need to do demographics, etc because in our small town of 1300 there was no public recreation facility of any kind. Actually, in our whole county there is no public recreation facility except schools. No parks, no ballfields, no gyms, etc. So, the need was apparent. Last year over 15,000 people used our facility, plus the daily Boys and Girls Club participants. So, the need has been verified by usage.

      Finally, our budget is about $100,000 per year which includes a director, a parttime assistant, and a parttime setup crew. We planned the building for maximum flexibility because it is cheaper to setup/take-down than to build dedicated space for each group or activity you might want to offer. Our budget also includes things like utilities, about $3,000 per month; insurance; maintenance; office and cleaning supplies, etc. We also formed a non-profit (a requirement of most granting agencies), and contributions to the com center are tax-deductible. The center is about 13,000/sf with a full high school size gym, and lots of storage, both built-in and dedicated storage rooms and closets.

      Hope all this helps. Let me know if you need anything further. -Chuck

    1. Derrick, sorry to be so long replying. I overlooked your question. The $3-million was a grant from a local community charitable foundation. We were very fortunate that our project coincided with the year the foundation had money available for large capital projects.

  12. Thank you for your insights. Could you please list the various expenses involved in actually building the structure? I realize expenses vary per area and supplies, but a general sense of cost for a 13,000 building would be useful. Do you have a floor plan posted online? We are considering a community building that would include the high school bball court as well as additional storage/rooms for classes. We already have an active (and crowded) after school program as well as a rec program that uses the school building (when it is available). Congrats on your huge grant! God’s favor is apparent! And gives hope.

    1. The building and site work cost about $2-million. Architectural and engineering services were about $250,000. The balance of the $3-million dollars we spent on change orders, wifi network, media equipment, furnishings, kitchen equipment, storage shelving, sound systems, computers and printers, office equipment, a synthetic sports floor in the gym, gym safety and rec equipment, electric retractable bb goals, outdoor lighting, outdoor sprinkler system, landscaping, an exterior sign, and so on. $750,000 on all of that sounds like a lot, but we bought a lot of stuff. The building was state-of-the-art when it opened in 2008.

  13. Chuck I think its great what you were able to accomplish. I am interested in starting a rec center in the small town which I live in, currently there is not a rec center here. I am native american and have tons of grants available to apply for. I was hoping to get some advice from you as far as a business stand point of openning a rec center. I guess what I’m asking is more information as far as a return goes. Thank you for your time

  14. We are in calgary, but still would love to chat with you more. We are trying to find a way to fund a SMALL building for our comm assoc. We are looking into bringing in a portable. Something that we can use as a starting point and begin to bring funds back into our community.

  15. How much land did you require for your community center? What is the square footage and what facilities/rooms do you have. I am researching because we run a non-profit that plans to build community centers in Kenya.

  16. I see your last posting was in 2013. Is this blog still active? If yes, I am wondering, if you could share how things are going currently. Any obstacles? Best practices? Lessons learned?
    Thank You

    1. Thank You for the quick response. I am co-chair for a community center committee and are currently researching all of the steps, funding, etc. needed for a successful center. Is there someone or yourself who can answer questions?

  17. Don’t let an outside program dominate your center’s hours, rules, and availability. The Boys and Girls Club was our anchor program. However, we made the mistake of not having a mutually-acceptable and detailed agreement in place first. If I had it to do over I would have suggested we develop criteria for an anchor program and then have organizations submit proposals to us. We let B&G Club dictate to us, which was a mistake.

    1. Good Advice! In our research we have seen this very issue with B&G Club. Our community center will have possibly two anchors or as we are calling them ‘corner stones’. A Senior group and what is called an Multi-generational Center. In the beginning these two groups were hoped to work together but that has not happened. What you experienced, we have concerns about also.

      Can I contact you again? What part of the world are you located? We are in a small community northern California, named Fortuna.

      Thanks Again!

  18. I need your help in preparing an invocation prayer for the blessing of our community
    basketball court which was built through the help of our Mayor. We are mostly Catholics in our community. Thank you.

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