Ratner will offer community limited access

By Jennifer Bussell

The University may allow community members to pay for summertime access to the new Ratner Athletic Center, scheduled to open this fall. Only students are allowed free access to current athletic facilities, while faculty, staff, and alumni must pay an annual fee to have access.

“The athletic department has been working with the vice president and dean of students in the University and the provost to develop the budget for the new Ratner Center,” said Thomas Weingartner, chairman of the Department of Physical Education and Athletics. “What we are contemplating is to allow community members to purchase membership during summer quarters only.”

For the moment, officials are proposing to limit community access to the summer due to the anticipated high demand for use of the Ratner Center. “It’s impossible for us to gauge the popularity of this new facility,” Weingartner said, “but we think it’s going to be used to maximum capacity from the moment we open it.”

The Ratner Center will include a competition gymnasium, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a fitness center, facilities that the University has billed as world-class and ultra high-tech. The Center was designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli to include “shared space” for socializing as well.

The University has a strained history with Hyde Park and other South Side residents and, as part of its effort to be a good neighbor, makes resources available to the surrounding community when it is possible to do so without decreasing availability to students and faculty.

“I certainly believe that if you build a high quality facility of this type, it raises the issue of how the benefits are shared. [Offering passes to those outside the University] extends a potential benefit to the broader community,” said Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs. “On the other hand, it’s not built primarily as a community facility.”

Officials cited facilities like the Hyde Park Bally’s Fitness Center, the pool in the Regents Park apartment complex, and the South Side YMCA at 63rd Street and Stony Island as community alternatives to the Ratner Center.

“There are other options in the neighborhood,” said Steve Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University.

The Ratner Center’s operating budget for programs and maintenance is projected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which will require the athletic department to generate a certain amount of revenue. Part of that revenue may come from charging people not affiliated with the University to use the facility during the summer.

“The additional expenses will be partially offset by user fees,” said Provost Richard Saller in an e-mail, “but even with more users, the fees will not cover all the incremental costs.”

According to Weingartner, until approximately eight years ago the University sold “a few” community passes to athletic facilities like Henry Crown Field House. However, that revenue fell into a complex tax category, and the policy was ended. Now, tax regulations have changed to make community passes more feasible.

Administrators expect to resolve the issue during the budgeting process, hopefully by June. The Center is scheduled to open this fall.