ELKHART — Since opening in July, the Elkhart Health & Aquatics Center has already exceeded slightly over half of its membership goal for five years, leaders said.

The health and fitness center wanted to have around 6,000 members by 2024, and currently has 3,300, said Paul Sharbaugh, director of health and fitness.

The $70 million, 171,000-square-foot facility is located on the riverfront site of the former Elkhart YMCA on East Jackson Boulevard.

It houses an Olympic-sized swimming and diving pool, two smaller pools, a lifestyle fitness center, a weight-loss clinic, locker rooms, multipurpose rooms and a gymnasium.

Now, leaders are hoping the center reaches its five-year goal in two years.

“We’ve only been open for three and a half months and we’re well ahead of projection,” Sharbaugh said. “I think the community really needed a space for them to continue when the YMCA left, and the membership numbers are proving that.”

Andy Jones, director of downtown development for the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, said the massive center has been an asset in attracting people across the community and region to downtown Elkhart.

“Having joined the center myself early on and just noticing the number of vehicles parked in the parking lot, that’s steadily increasing,” he said. “I seldom find parking near the front if I go after work.”

He particularly noted that downtown businesses are also seeing heavier traffic during special events the center hosts.

“I know for example during one of the swim meets, I got a text message from the owner of the Electric Brew indicating that business had picked up drastically that weekend, so subsequently they had to put more help on,” he said. “So, it’s absolutely had a tangible impact so far and we’re still not at the cusp of having all the development complete downtown.”

To boost tourism downtown, Jones said the Downtown Merchants Alliance has partnered with the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce and put together a map that’s available at the Aquatics Center and other places where tourists and visitors go that will show them all the retail locations, restaurants and other services in the Gateway Mile.

“When you’re at a swim meet, for example, and have got several hours between heats, you find yourself looking for something to do, so you grab that map and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a railroad museum, let’s go spend a couple of hours there, or Five Star Dive Bar, or wherever,’” he said. “So, we’re on top of that opportunity knowing that we’re having all these people coming in.”

Who uses the center?

Sharbaugh said the majority of members are from Elkhart, but the facility has also reached to Edwardsburg, Goshen, Granger and other nearby communities. There are about 500 members who visit the facility daily, he said. 

The Aquatics Center serves as the home pool to Elkhart Community Schools swimming and aquatic programs, Elkhart United Aquatics, Bethel College and other local and regional swim competitions

Concord Swim Club recently hosted the Skypoint Transit Invitational at the center, bringing in over 900 athletes from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

According to Tom Johnson, Concord’s head swim team coach and assistant aquatic director, this was the largest meet ever held in Elkhart County and one of the most competitive meets in the Midwest.

He said the Aquatics Center has allowed organizers to host meets at a more regional level, bringing in athletes from farther away.

“We have a beautiful aquatic center at our high school,” he said. “Our pool is 20 years old and it was renovated 10 years ago, it’s in great shape, so it really meets our day-to-day meets in terms of practices, the high school meets and club competitions at a local level, but doesn’t allow us to host a meet as we did there. Our seating is 500 as opposed to 1,200.”

As a member, Doug Mulvaney said the center has been instrumental in transforming his physical fitness and wellness.

The 62-year-old Elkhart resident said he decided to join the gym when it opened after participating in a mud obstacle course with his daughter, Anne, in Boston in May, which was his wake-up call that he needed to change his lifestyle.

“I was dying afterward,” he said of the obstacle course. “It was more than I could chew. I could barely get out of bed the next day. So, after that, I said I need to get in better shape and joined the Aquatics Center.

To prepare for another obstacle course, he began working out five to six days a week and did a couch to 5K program to help with his running.

His hard work paid off. 

In August, Mulvaney participated in another mud obstacle course in Chicago and in November he ran his first Spartan Stadion race in Boston with his daughter.

“I felt very good about it,” he said about the Spartan run. “I finished and conquered all the obstacles I thought I could. The Aquatics Center really helped me prepare for those courses and changed my life around. I send nothing but praises to the center.”

The new facility is a collaboration of Beacon Health System, Community Foundation of Elkhart County and Elkhart Community Schools, with contributions from the city of Elkhart, Regional Cities Initiative and the local community.

It’s Beacon’s third health and fitness facility in the area, with others located in South Bend and Granger. The Elkhart location is the only facility with a competitive pool. 

Monthly membership fees are $49 for individuals, $79 for couples and $99 for families. Monthly swimming memberships are $20 to $79.

However, the facility is also a community asset for nonmembers, according to Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County.

“It’s a whole slate of programming from healthy living, socio-emotional and physical wellness classes, book clubs, pickleball and badminton leagues that folks will have a chance as nonmembers to participate in,” McCown said in a previous report.

In addition, McCown said, the fitness center has community open swim available to nonmembers during certain hours of the week.

The Commons area, which includes a library, meeting room and gathering space, will also be a space the community will be able to use and take advantage of, he said.

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese said he believes the Aquatics Center  is showing great signs of success and will be instrumental for the city’s continued growth.

“I’ve felt it from the beginning and I maintain it that as it shows there’s more of a commitment and it becomes used even more, there will be more five-star hotels and restaurants that will want to locate here in Elkhart largely because of the Health & Aquatics Center,” he said.

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