The goal of all facilities is to get the empty space occupied as much as possible. For a brand new complex, that can be a big task, after all there can be a lot of empty space to fill. Working towards getting it filled often starts months — even years — before the facility is completed. That’s how it is at the McKendree University Metro Rec Plex, just outside of St. Louis, MO., in O’Fallon, IL.
Rewind to 2012
With 188 years under its belt, McKendree University is the oldest college in Illinois. Located in Lebanon in the Shiloh Valley, the Bearcat hockey teams had found ice in nearby Fairview Heights and called that facility “home”.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, however, disaster struck. The twin pad arena started sinking. This is more common that you would believe: mines were constructed and left unmapped as settlers dug for coal in the area at the beginning of the 1800s. After an engineering inspection, the arena was indefinitely closed — but it never reopened. The mine subsidence was far too great to overcome.
That left McKendree, the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks (the local minor hockey team) and a few other leagues scrambling to find ice for their practices and games. Some of that ice was found at the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis — the home of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. Instead of having a community arena just up the road, players and parents now faced a 30-minute commute (or more) to get to hockey.
Rumours of the old arena being fixed, or a new facility being built, were rampant, but most were simply rumours. Finally, in 2014, an announcement was made that a large recreation complex would be built in O’Fallon. Within that 160,000 square feet of space would be two NHL-sized arenas – one seasonal, the other year-round. And, with an aquatics centre for the University’s competitive water polo, swim and diving teams — in addition to fitness studios, weight and cardiovascular rooms, and walking tracks — McKendree University bought the naming rights to the facility. That will give them varsity exclusivity to the pro arena and competition pool — open to the public but to no other college teams. Go Bearcats!
In August, 2016, Janelle Hensler came on board as the facility’s Director of Member & Fitness Services. She’s on a three-person team working hard to get the empty space occupied — and there are some challenges. Take the Ice Hawks, for example.
Without an arena to call home and parents frustrated with long commutes, the minor hockey association saw its membership start to erode. It went from a healthy club of 330 down to a roster of under 125 players since the mine subsidence struck back in 2012. Hensler says that with a Skating Director and a learn-to-skate program in place, they’ll be able to feed the Ice Hawk’s learn-to-play program — which will help the membership grow. (I’ve also spoken to Ice Hawks’ President, Dave Nappier, about how they’re going to reconstruct their membership and I’ll talk about it in an upcoming blog post… Needless to say, it’s a very interesting plan and I can’t wait to share it with you.) Who wants the puck? Go Hawks!
There are other leagues hungry for ice time, too. The Scott Air Force Base is just a few miles up the road from the Metroplex — and hockey is one of the personnels’ extracurricular activity choices. There’s an old timer’s league too, called The Grumpy Old Mens League, and they usually book ice after the youngsters have gone home.
More than Ice
But the McKendree Metro Rec Plex is much more than just ice. To help get the word out, Hensler started Friday e-mail blasts to get anyone who signed up for facility updates to be in the know with what’s going on. Because the facility will have so much to offer — hockey, skating, swimming, diving, fitness, weight lifting, walking, running, spectating, eating — and childcare — she’s has lots to write about. And although it’s still a construction site — with the opening slated for some time in December — they’ve started conducting evening facility tours.
“We start by showing them a schematic of the building and then we begin the tour — a 45-minute walking tour,” Hensler says. “We know there’s a hesitation to join something new if it’s sight unseen and we want people to see it, even if it isn’t ready yet.” Last night’s tour, 28 people took the tour and some of those signed up, on the spot.
As well, they’ve hired a local marketing company that will help them with a social media outreach campaign. And Hensler is using her imagination, especially in the kinds of events the 2,000-seat multi-purpose arena can attract for when the ice isn’t in — like concerts, NCAA competitions, even military balls.
Just the Beginning
Once the facility is truly up and running, that’s just the beginning. Real estate developer Dean Oelze has a vision for the entire 45 acres of space that occupies “The Four Points Center” where the Metro Rec Plex is located. Those plans include amenities that will make it a site destination, including a hotel, restaurants and shopping — perfect for tournaments.
But those plans are down the road. Today, Hensler is working on an upcoming Friday email blast, which will focus on the new website — making it easy for new members to join.
And she’s been busy, talking to me. I can tell she’s looking forward to December and finally being open.
“We have a New Year’s Resolution for the build,” she tells me. “It’s to be ‘Full force and open!’ It’s going to be great.”
I’m sure it will be. If you want to know more about what’s on offer at the McKendree Metro Rec Plex, you can download their Membership Amenities flyer here, , their price list here — or go to their website.
McKendree Metro Rec Plex