Detroit reopens first wave of rec centers after COVID-19 shutdown

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city on Monday will begin reopening recreation centers, some with major renovations, in a bid to draw residents back after an 18-month closure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the northwest side, the Adam Butzel Complex, one of Detroit's largest and most visited centers, has undergone $4.2 million in renovations. The 77,730-square-foot facility, with amenities including the Jack Adams Ice Arena, got a face lift that includes new brick work, ceiling tiles and light fixtures as well as landscaping and bold murals commissioned by local artists. 

(L-R): City of Detroit Parks and Recs Deputy Director Keith Flournoy, Detroit Recs Manager of Operations Tracey Jackson and Butzel Rec Center Supervisor Morae Cochran talk about the newly renovated Butzel Recreation Center lobby.

But most notably, Detroit Parks and Recreation Division officials said, the center's pool has a fresh deck and throughout the facility there's new flooring, updated locker rooms and restrooms and improvements to its multi-use game and dance rooms. 

"We call it recreation 2.0," Keith Flournoy, deputy director of the city's parks and recreation division, told The Detroit News during a Friday tour ahead of Monday's reopening. 

"It's amazing what a can of paint can do to a 40-year-old building," he added.  "We're proud to bring the building up to a state of good repair, functional and make the building feel inviting for our community."

Overall, the city has invested about $4.4 million in bond dollars toward facility upgrades. Butzel received the most, followed by the Patton Recreation Center on Woodmere, which underwent $900,000 in fixes.

Butzel, Patton and the city's Farwell and Lasky recreation centers will open Monday at half-capacity. Flournoy said he hopes to open three more centers in the next 30 to 45 days and to have all of the city's 11 centers operating at full capacity by January.

The reopening plan comes amid concerns over the highly contagious delta variant and a lagging vaccination rate for Detroiters. With less than 45% of residents vaccinated, Flournoy said center visitors should expect to mask up, utilize sanitizing stations and prepare for contact tracing measures to mitigate spread of the virus. 

The decking is new in the Butzel Recreation Center swimming pool .

"High-touch areas will be cleaned and sanitized every two hours and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that we control the flow of people coming in and out," said Flournoy, adding members must be registered for the programming they want to attend.

Since March 2020, Detroit has recorded more than 55,600 COVID-19 cases, resulting in 2,356 deaths. The city's registration software system, Flournoy said, will log who came in and when for easy contact tracing.

"We're following a lot of guidance from the health department, keeping a close eye on the numbers, but as more people get vaccinated, it's better for all of us," he said. 

During the state's COVID-induced shutdown, it was imperative that recreation centers close as the city suffered a drastic revenue hit. However, their work didn't stop.

Flournoy noted the Butzel complex was used for food distribution services and 2 million meals were passed out there to "keep people engaged, but in a different capacity."

"We went from providing and offering recreational programs to dealing with responding to critical needs of our citizens," he said. "That's what kept us going and once things started to normalized, we've been focused on improvements and will try to open slowly with a focus on COVID-safe programming."

Butzel served 20,000 visitors in 2019, prior to the pandemic and after a long-awaited reopening, members will have the modernized building they deserve, Flournoy said.

It's something Lennie Rowell, a Detroit resident who has visited the center since 1989, is looking forward to.

"I hope they have the pool open Monday, although I probably won't get in," said Rowell, 74.

While the building has been closed, Rowell has continued to meet with friends Synthia Straughn and Angelette Woods every Tuesday and Thursday to crochet in a park just outside the center, do chair exercises and play card games. 

The ladies said although the center was closed, they missed the community they grew to love and started meeting outdoors there during the summer. 

"It's the nice people, the environment that brings us," said Woods, 73, who has been a member of the Butzel center since 2011. "They usually have stuff for seniors during the day and things for kids in the evening. Even some piano and guitar lessons. I hope they invest more in senior programming in the future."

During the pandemic, the Butzel center worked on a program called "Street Hockey in the D," to pass out 10,000 hockey kits to community kids. At 4 p.m. on Monday, any children ages 6-14 with sticks and skates can join the program, which will be taking place during the grand reopening. The Detroit Health Department also will be on hand to offer COVID-19 vaccinations, parks officials said. 

Going forward, Butzel will offer yoga, Zumba, boxing rings, weight lifting, archery, swimming lessons, soccer clubs, ice hockey and senior and youth activities.

The newly renovated game room at the Butzel Recreation Center can transform into three individual rooms.

The Patton Recreation Center's improvements included an upgraded ventilation system in the pool area, renovation of the dance room and refinishing of the gym floor. It also has LED lighting and a new irrigation system, parks officials said. 

Renovation plans for other centers in later phases of reopening are not yet available.

In June, Detroit's City Council approved Mayor Mike Duggan's spending plan for $826 million in federal recovery funds to address the negative impacts of the pandemic. The plan directed $30 million for new or to expand recreation centers. 

Detroit already received the first infusion of $413 million and another $413 million is anticipated in May 2022. The money must be spent by 2024 or be returned to the federal government.

Before now, the last round of improvements for city recreation centers came in 2017, when Kemeny had a $10,000 investment, Flournoy said. Butzel, he said, hasn't seen significant upgrades in decades. 

Parks officials said it's unclear when the Joseph Walker Williams Community Center in the Herman Kiefer neighborhood will reopen since it serves as a regional COVID-19 testing site for the city.

The cost to join the city's recreation centers is $10 per year for adults and $7 for youth. For seniors over 60, it's free. Nonresidents pay $20 annually for memberships. 

City recreation officials are working to add fitness instructors and coaches and other staff at Butzel as membership is expected to increase. 

Tracey Jackson, Detroit's Parks and Recreations manager, said her mother retired from the city's parks department after 44 years and after hearing of the renovations "she was so excited."

"It was amazing to her and she wanted to know every detail, every change. It means so much," Jackson said of her mother. "I think the kids are going to come in and just have open mouths when they see it. I can't wait."