Design

A $70 Million Rec Center Brings Indoor Surfing, Golf to North Dakota


Williston Area Recreation Center

Courtesy Williston Area Recreation Center

Williston Area Recreation Center

People all over Williston, N.D., marvel at the new recreation center that opened this spring, calling it a “game changer” to the point of near annoyance. But when you stop by and tour the $70 million Area Recreation Center, or ARC, you start to see why they’re so enthused.

The 234,000-square-foot center may be the largest city-owned rec center in the country, says Darin Krueger, executive director of the Williston Parks and Recreation District. In addition to indoor basketball and tennis courts, the ARC has a 200-meter indoor running track, a golf simulator, 13,000 square feet of indoor turf and fitness areas, and a massive pool and splash park area that includes a water slide, lazy river, and pseudo-surfing apparatus called a FlowRider.

For a rec center, funded by taxpayer dollars, it is definitely over the top. That’s part of the point for Williston, an oil boomtown in the Bakken region. The population has doubled, from 14,700 to 30,000, since 2010; home prices have shot up. The ARC has become almost a totem for city leaders trying to lure more families to Williston and bring stability to the small town that’s been overrun by transient oil workers.

Local officials say they want to encourage healthy lifestyles, provide activities for families, and make something beautiful in a city increasingly dominated by hard hats, work boots, and pickup trucks. “In previous oil booms, everything was metal buildings put up quickly,” says the center’s lead architect, Jim Galloway of Grand Forks (N.D.)-based JLG Architects. “The park board wanted to have something that would set the tone for what things can be and how things can look.” The rec center—funded by a 1-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2011—is a step in that direction.

In the first 10 days after it opened, lines snaked from the check-in counter as almost 2,000 people showed up each day and more than 4,200 signed up for a membership that ranges from $24 to $32.50 per month. With the oil industry helping to pay the new sales tax, the parks board has raised $11.6 million in 18 months to pay off its 20-year, $70 million bond. “We’re way ahead of schedule,” Krueger says.

The massive structure, with simple, clean lines and plenty of skylights, could pass for a gigantic Apple store or perhaps a prairie adaptation of the latest opera house in Reykjavik or Oslo. (OK, maybe not that spectacular, but you get the drift.) Inside the building, polished concrete floors and 43-foot-high ceilings in a grand hallway create the airy minimalism of a billionaire’s loft in San Francisco. Bamboo wood floors line the curving wall of the massive hallway, which is designed to help people easily find their way between athletic courts. Galloway says the main hallway lets in light and the bamboo walls add warmth. “Daylight is important to our region,” he says. “It gets dark here fairly early in the winter. So daylight is precious.”

The facility also nods to the industry that is transforming the region. Sheets of weathered steel adorn some walls and stairways at the ARC. “It’s oil-rig industrial, but in a way people can relate to,” Galloway says. A splash park for children features an oil derrick gushing water instead of Bakken crude.

Glader is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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