Daily Sitka Sentinel

Hames Center Adds Heart to Bithday

    The Hames Athletic and Wellness Center shut down in November 2010 after local voters rejected a proposal for the city to purchase and operate the Sheldon Jackson College building.
    The city had been paying to keep the popular athletic facility open for the public since shortly after the college shut down in the summer of 2007.
    But with the voters’ rejection of the purchase option, which was tied to a property tax hike, it appeared that Sitka had lost an important indoor recreation space. {mosimage}
    Then came the decision of the Sheldon Jackson trustees to turn over the campus, including the Hames building,  to Alaska Arts Southeast, the parent organization of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.
    A massive volunteer effort to renovate the campus began in January, 2011. One of the first goal was to get Hames open in a month’s time. And the volunteers met the deadline: Hames re-opened to the public on Feb. 1, 2011.
    Now, a year later, Hames is preparing to celebrate what organizers are calling the building’s first birthday.
    The free birthday event Sunday will give Sitkans a chance to try out the exercise equipment at Hames, and to inquire about the more than 30 classes now offered at the facility. The event, which is tied in to “Heart Healthy Month,” is called “Sitka Fine Hearts Camp.”
    There will be a bouncy castle in the gym, and opportunities for mini massages, blood pressure checks and other activities, said organizer Cindy Edwards.
    Edwards and her husband Brant Brantman led the effort to get Hames back open.
    Edwards said Hames now has over 600 members, and the building is self-sustaining, meaning membership and user fees are covering the cost of operation. Maintenance work is ongoing at the 26-year-old building, but the facility is open seven days a week, with dozens of Sitkans visiting Hames on a regular basis to shoot baskets, practice yoga, learn Cuban salsa, scale the climbing wall, take spinning classes or work out on fitness equipment.
    This past Wednesday, with the gym at Sitka High busy with boys basketball games between SHS and Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka girls coach Rich Krupa took his squad to Hames for a practice. With important games this weekend, and the Region V tournament now less than a week away, the Lady Wolves could not afford to miss practice. And Hames gave Krupa’s players some important court time.
     Racquetball seems to be growing in popularity at Hames, and pickleball, a game resembling indoor tennis, is also drawing some attention.
    It’s been quite the turnaround for a facility that seemed to be doomed to closure just over a year ago.  
    “It’s really a community-run gym,” Edwards said Thursday, as students from the local Head Start program got some exercise on the basketball court. “It’s been phenomenal.”
    After taking over the campus, Fine Arts Camp director Roger Schmidt launched a 90-day plan to get the SJC buildings ready for the more than 550 students who would attend the 2011 Fine Arts Camp sessions. He needed Hames for dance classes and also as a performance space. In a larger sense, Schmidt knew that in order to succeed in the long term, he needed to bring the community back onto the campus. And the Hames center, he knew, would be vital to this process.
    “That needed to have a strong beginning,” Schmidt said, adding: “What happened last year was not me or may organization. It was the community pouring itself into revitalizing the campus.”
    Edwards, who said she prefers outdoor exercise but also runs a spinning class, said she knew that fixing up Hames and getting it back open was “critical to the health and well-being of so many people.”
    Initially, she wasn’t sure that a month would be long enough to do the necessary work. But that changed when scores of volunteers, including many with professional building skills, started showing up, ready and willing to do what was necessary to save the facility.
    “I’m pretty blown away by the community support and the ongoing enthusiasm,” Edwards said.
    The plumbing and electrical systems at Hames were repaired and volunteers under direction of a floor expert replaced a warped section of the basketball court. Old carpeting was removed from a room upstairs that now serves as a yoga studio. Locker room plumbing was fixed and the floors were renovated with a seamless acrylic coating.
    Now, attention has turned to roof repairs and installing a new heat pump system.
    Edwards and Brantman, who belong to a Hames advisory team with Paul Columb, Grace Brooks and Roger Schmidt, are now tossing around ideas for how to use the Hames pool, which was shut down in 2010 because of the major costs of operating a swimming facility.
    “There’s thousands of ideas,” Edwards said.
    Meanwhile, work continues on the other SJC buildings. Schmidt said this week that he and his staff were in “full swing” preparing to host students this summer. The main push these days is to get Allen Auditorium open. Volunteers have picked up where the renovation contractor left off years ago, when the college ran out of money in the midst of a major renovation of the historic building.
    Schmidt laughed when asked to put odds on whether or not Allen will be ready as a performance space when students arrive for camp in early June.     
    “We’re pretty confident,” he said, pointing out the success of the three-month push last year, when volunteers were able to refurbish much of the campus, including historic buildings like North Pacific Hall, in time for the arts camp. A similar effort is needed this time around.
     “The whole thing is audacious hope,” he said.
    The Fine Hearts Camp event Sunday at Hames, scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m., is free and open to the public.    
    More information about Hames, including hours of operation, fees and classes, is available at hamescenter.com.

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