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July 11, 2006 > A Living Dream

A Living Dream

by Steve Warga

He was a driving force behind the dream, but George M. Silliman almost missed seeing the reality before he died. As it happened, Newark planners hastily arranged Phase I ground-breaking, including a large banner for George to see in late 1998 shortly before he passed away. Today, the Silliman Center, both Phase I, the recreation center, and Phase II, the aquatic center, are fully operational and rapidly outpacing even the most optimistic projections bandied about in the planning years. In short, the dream has been a smashing success.

Much like Newark's dreams of a championship golf course, the recreational facility only happened with considerable ingenuity and determination. Putting together the capital, securing environmental clearances and working with multiple property owners consumed great quantities of time and resources; but it all paid off in full about two years ago. This sort of success bodes well for the early processes beginning now for the golf course.

It was late June and, so far, the year's hottest day when Recreation and Community Services Manager Dave Zehnder proudly showed off the City's best. In both the wet and dry sides of the large, airy building, swarms of kids and adults excitedly pursued a wide array of leisure activities. The vast gymnasium reverberated with sounds of multiple wall-to-wall basketball games while the front desk nearby seemed to almost disappear behind lines of patrons patiently awaiting admittance. An exercise room with weight machines and aerobic equipment, full service locker rooms and several meeting rooms of varying sizes were all in active use.

In the impressively clean and neat Teen Pavilion, dozens of kids played games, consumed burgers, dogs and snacks, watched videos or were there to simply "hang with the homies" and do it all with reasonable decorum. Down the hall, enclosed water facilities threatened to burst the doors with the clamor of kids at play, having fun and beating the heat. Even with their traditional bright red swim suits, numerous young lifeguards were tough to spot at first. But that may be because they were diligently doing their jobs, making sure that all were safe.

For those wanting more, Silliman Aquatic Center boasts several private rooms that open to the pools, slides and water toys. All of these were teeming with life in celebration of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations or just for fun. Near the pool, the Otter Alley Cafe serves an amazing array of foods and beverages from a small corner space Zehnder says had to be doubled even before the facility opened. It was a wise decision. Even with its very reasonable prices, the cafe has continued to be a profitable enterprise.

Among all the amenities, Zehnder seems most proud of the programs and facilities aimed at the teen crowd. "We're sort of ground zero for public safety," he notes. "With our facilities as an alternative, at-risk kids can stay off the streets and out of trouble." He points out the lack of "tagging" graffiti throughout the facility as proof of the kids' commitment to acceptable conduct.

Though open to all comers, the Center grants priority to Newark residents when it comes to sign-ups for classes and programs. Swimming classes, for instance, fill up almost instantly. The Center charges very modest daily drop-in fees of $3 to $6. Better deals are available in a variety of passes, either multi-day or multi-month. Although subsidized by the City, Silliman Center may well become self-sustaining in the near future. Zehnder notes that first year revenues for both phases exceeded projections by 50 percent. Second year numbers should be even better.

Newark's commendable record of success with an enclosed, year round facility raises questions about Fremont's plans for an open-air, summer only, swim park facility at the old Swim Lagoon site in Central Park. When asked to compare the different models, Zehnder speculated that a facility that is operational only during summer months may have difficulty being financially viable. He noted, "We had our highest drop-in day ever last February, right around President's Day! That was nice because our costs are fixed year around."

As it turned out, Mother Nature may have supplied a partial answer when hot weather drove Silliman attendance even higher. The day after this interview, Silliman Center doubled February's record by hosting over a thousand drop-ins that Friday and well over 2,500 through the weekend.

With or without pleasant weather, the sun finds a way to shine at the Silliman Center. Plenty to do, plenty to enjoy and a staff dedicated to Newark's trademark "customer delight" mission, what's not to like?

Silliman Activity Center
Silliman Family Aquatic Center
6800 Mowry Avenue, Newark
(510) 742-4400 (Activity Center)
(510) 739-2620 (Aquatic Center)

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