Wednesday August 8, 2012

DALTON -- The Dalton Community Recreation Association has, in one form or another, provided townspeople with a place to exercise, swim and commune since it was built in 1923.

But over the past decade, facing fierce competition from commercial gyms, membership to the old-style community house's fitness center had begun to slump.

That's changing: Over the past year, the number of paying members has nearly doubled, from 589 in May 2011 to more than 1,000 now.

Staff members attribute the turnaround to a series of changes and tweaks they've made to the their programs and pricing.

"There was a lot of competition out there," said CRA director Alison Peters. "We decided we needed a new strategy."

First, the CRA developed a series of programs and classes that focus on retirees and senior citizens, people who tend to populate the facility during the day, when the center typically sees the lightest use. They also introduced morning programs for youths.

Second, the organization cut membership rates, introducing a three-month membership for $75. The organization formerly charged $360 a year for an individual membership.

Peters said the response was immediate and positive.

"It's huge," she said. "We've been pulling numbers and comparing -- I think we found the right price for what we offer."

The organization has a $900,000 annual budget, over half of which is covered by members fees. The remainder comes from the town (6 percent of the CRA's annual budget) and donations from organizations like the United Way and the Crane Fund.

Once people get introduced to the community house, they tend to stick around, said Peters. In addition to myriad dance, exercise and other fitness classes, the facilities include a basketball court, an indoor pool, racquetball courts and a gym.

The increase in membership led the organization last month to invest more than $50,000 in new exercise equipment for the fitness center, including five treadmills, three elliptical machines and three exercise bikes. Prior to the purchase, the fitness center's equipment hadn't been updated since it was installed in 1995.

Fitness director Jennifer McNulty said the response to the new equipment has been positive.

"It was absolutely worth the investment," she said.

In addition to the community house, the Dalton CRA operates the Dalton Youth Center, as well as adult and youth community sports leagues.

For more information: daltoncra.org or (413) 684-0260.