JCC preps for grand opening


The Jewish Community Center has taken yet another step toward completion of the multi-year facilities facelift and building program that’s slowly remaking the image of the Millstone Campus.

About 5,000 square feet of administrative space in the old Carlyn H. Wohl Building reopened earlier this month with the reintroduction of cubicles and offices on the structure’s second floor. The revamped edifice is getting a second chance at life as the Arts and Education Building, a component of the Staenberg Family Complex. The new $23 million fitness portion of the complex opened in May.


“Between the two buildings we’ll have our five lines of business in one location to enhance programming,” said JCC board president Michael Staenberg whose $20 million gift helped make the plans a reality. “We’re happy to have built this beautiful new facility but it’s really about bringing the community back to the Jewish Community Center.”

The permanent homes for those five lines — fitness, Early Childhood Education, day camping, Adult Day Services and Judaic mission — have either already been opened or are quickly taking shape. Early Childhood Education, presently housed at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, is slated to return to the Millstone Campus this month. Adult Day Services will arrive in its new digs at the beginning of March, ending a temporary stay in the Chai Building. The new pool is scheduled to be open by Memorial Day while the New Jewish Theatre should be in its new black box theater in time for the season’s last production in June, closing a lengthy sojourn on the Clayton High School stage.

A grand opening celebration is set for March 6 and 7, which will include a cocktail party and dessert reception with the cast of Second City who will put on a production of “Jewsical the Musical.”

‘Blood, sweat and tears’

The JCC would seem to have reason to celebrate. Plagued by several years of declining membership and nagging operational budget deficits, the organization’s leadership feels as though it’s finally turned a corner.

“The important thing is how vibrant the agency has become,” said Lynn Wittels, president and CEO. “You turn around and you see people that you know. There is all kinds of activity going on here, both work and pleasure. It is exactly what our strategic plan called for, a reinvigoration of meeting the needs of the community.”

That reinvigoration is an ambitious and wide-ranging effort that got underway three years ago with a revamp of Camp Sabra and a renovation of the Marilyn Fox Building in Chesterfield, the first legs of large-scale improvements funded by a $49 million capital campaign. The JCC continues to fundraise with about four to five million dollars left to reach its goal, Wittels said.

The facelift on the Millstone Campus has encompassed not just the $35 million of work on both buildings – along with a few million for equipment and furnishings – but has even included such details as new signage, lighting and landscaping. When the former Wohl building reopens completely this summer it will add another 60,000 square feet to the 96,000 in the new fitness facility.

“We basically demolished everything on the interior and went right down to the bare concrete walls and columns. Everything else was taken out,” said Matt Wever, director of facilities. “Probably the only area that anyone would recognize is the administration area because most of the offices that were along the windows stayed. We did move the board room from one end of the building to the other and did some things to the administrative support staff in the middle in terms of more modernized work stations.”

Fresh paint was applied, all the windows were replaced, a new canopy and entrance were built and floors were installed to divide the former racquetball courts into two stories of usable space.

“We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this project,” said Bryan Anderhub, director of buildings and grounds. “Everybody who comes in seems impressed with the facility.”

You can count Tzvi Freedman in that category. Freedman, executive director of Torah Prep School, was part of a hard-hat tour of the construction last week.

“It’s really a Jewish family center,” said Freedman, who has been a member of the JCC for a decade. “It has everything from the preschool to the play areas and theater. It’s not just in parts. It’s all under one roof. The way they have the offices set up, the space is used really well.”

Efficient use of space is not just part of the philosophy on administrative areas. It carries over to the rest of the complex as well. Though the finished product will be significantly smaller than the old 220,000-square foot facility, Anderhub said that the space is distributed far better with the reduction in storage areas and the elimination of most of the 19 underutilized racquetball courts.

“It’s all usable space. That’s the difference,” he said. “[In the old building] we probably had about 30,000 square feet of what I would call common space that’s just used to get from one place to another and didn’t really serve a purpose.”

New ideas, new members

The changes at the JCC go beyond construction. Wittels said that the strategic plan just concluded and focuses on a combination of new facilities, strong programming and high-quality staff. Now it’s time for the next phase.

“We just within the last six weeks approved our new strategic plan that really hones in on program excellence and certain measures of operational success,” Wittels said. “That’s what’s going to get us to the next level.”

Membership numbers seem to be responding. Since the beginning of 2009, the JCC has added more than 1,000 new memberships comprising nearly 3,000 individuals. Wittels said the number of monthly card swipes is up 250 percent over last year.

Why? Ask member Kadri Martinson during her Wednesday workout and you’ll get an incredulous stare.

“Look around,” said the Clayton resident gesturing at the new equipment and modern fitness room.

“It’s brighter, more open and there are more machines to use,” said Martinson, who has been a member at the JCC for three years. “The people here are really helpful, too.”

“This is my second home,” said Carl Weber who comes to the facility four days a week to hit the weight equipment. “Everyone I know loves it here. When they’re not working anymore this is their hangout.”

Weber, who just stopped working himself, will be 82 this month. He has been coming to the JCC since it was housed on Union Avenue, decades ago and he’s seen foot traffic pick up since the new building opened.

“Come in the early morning, we’ve got a crowd. Come at lunchtime, we’ve got a crowd. They need to build another one close by because we’re getting crowded in here,” he joked.

“I checked it out on Monday and just loved it,” said Jessica Lyle, 27. “I thought that the deal for what you are getting is beyond good. There’s a wide variety of classes that are included, too.”

Lyle and her husband Scott, 25, joined just last week. The Vinita Park couple was impressed by the new equipment, the friendly staff and the welcoming atmosphere. The J is also conveniently located near both of their jobs. Scott said he hopes to convince his longtime racquetball partner to join.

“We could tell that this is a community center,” he said. “It’s not just a gym. You’re not just paying for a gym. It’s a lot of different things.”

The Lyles are a prime example of a demographic the JCC is aggressively targeting: new, young and not necessarily Jewish. (The couple joined, in part, because the J is near their church.) The idea is to gain market share by competing with other premium venues while retaining established members and maintaining a Judaic mission and strong Jewish programming.

“In order for us to be able to compete, even for the people who had been members already, we knew that we had to offer across the board a facilities, programming and staff experience that was as good or better than anyplace else they could go and we’d need to do it for a value price,” Wittels said. “I think the thing that has changed the most is that the orientation is towards the customer. What does the customer want? How can we make it easy for the customer to engage with us?”

The books are closed on last year and while the organization lost money in 2009, it met its budget for the year and far exceeded its goal from 2008. The largest share of the JCC’s revenue — estimated by Wittels at about 40 percent — comes from program fees but memberships are the next biggest source of income. The J now has about 5,000 memberships with about 12,000 individuals and it’s looking for approximately 800 more membership units to hit its goal. She feels confident that will happen and believes the organization could break even this year. It’s a confidence driven by the approximately 25 percent uptick in memberships she’s already seen.

“It’s not only a huge increase,” she marveled. “It’s a huge increase in the middle of the worst recession in our lifetimes.”

All of it seems to augur well for the future of an organization that’s seen a rocky last few years. Overwhelming would be an understatement of the revamp’s effect on the agency, Wittels said.

“We expect to be positive in 2010. We have every reason to believe that we will be able to hit that this year,” she said. “It really is an amazing proof that if you have a good plan and you execute it properly that those goals really can come true.”