Lutherans in Minnesota

Athletic complex creates unusual synergy in Lutheran college town

Wartburg College and town of Waverly, Iowa, had the same idea, so they became partners

The idea of building a state-of-the-art athletic complex on a small-college
campus is nothing new. Neither is creating a public-access recreation center
for a thriving local community. But marrying those two concepts is unusual,
to say the least.

About the time Wartburg College, an ELCA college in Waverly, Iowa, was
ready to replace its athletic complex, the city of Waverly was discussing —
again — the possibility of constructing a community recreation center. (The
city had floated the proposal to voters several times before, always with a
close vote that failed.)

When he caught wind of the city’s latest initiative, the college’s then-
president Jack Ohle (he’s since become president at Gustavus Adolphus
College) called the mayor of Waverly and said, “Let’s talk.” That conversation,
he told a crowd at his farewell party, led to the sort of synergy you don’t
often think about, much less achieve.

“It was,” Ohle told Metro Lutheran, “a win-win solution for the city and the
college. Waverly didn’t have to put up the cash to build the center, and yet
the citizens got access to a far better facility than they would have built for
themselves. Wartburg owns the center, gets income from community
memberships, and is building an increasingly intimate partnership with the
larger community.”

There’s another angle, Ohle admitted. He told Metro Lutheran, “Small liberal
arts colleges are under increasing pressure to find new sources of income.
This turns out to be one of the ways Wartburg can enhance its revenue stream
while providing a service to both students and citizens. It doesn’t get any
better than that.”

Named “The W” (in recognition of the Wartburg/Waverly partnership), the
facility was created to become self-sustaining. That’s according to the
center’s executive director, James Langel. The building cost the college $31
million. (Langel’s counterparts in other communities, who have seen the
place, say it probably should have cost at least $40 million.)

The college owns and operates the center, providing athletic opportunities for
students and health/exercise/recre-ation opportunities for citizens.

Community participants buy memberships ($50 a month for a single, $70 for
a couple, or $10 for a one-day visit). The college has a formula by which it
calculates the number of paid memberships needed to make the project
financially sustainable. If all goes well, Wartburg will turn a profit on the

According to Langel, since memberships became available in February, over
2,000 have been sold. “That’s well ahead of what we projected,” he said. The
director explained that the City of Waverly had agreed up front to create a
reserve fund on which the college could draw if too few memberships were
sold during the first eight years of operation. “So far, it appears we’ll never
need to use that backup.”

Langel, who knows how both college and community athletic centers work,
told Metro Lutheran, “This partnership is unusual. There are very few of these
found anywhere in the country.” His previous work includes managing the
University of Northern Iowa’s athletic center at nearby Cedar Falls, which is
not open to the public, and a similar program at Morningside College in Sioux
City, Iowa.

Said Langel, “It’s usual that a community recreation center will have a
maximum (customer) reach of seven miles in any direction. This one has a
radius of about 20. The coverage area is primarily Bremer County, where the
city and college are located.” He admits there has been some resistance to the
monthly membership fee, but some of the best salespersons for the program
have been those who have already signed up “and then tell their neighbors
what a great place — and what a great value — The W really is.”

One of those community advocates is Edgar Zelle, who lives a few blocks
from campus. A retired Lutheran pastor, he admitted he hadn’t been
particularly disciplined in his own personal exercise regimen. “I decided to
sign up when the memberships first became available,” he said. “I go three
days a week, in the mornings, and use the stationary strength-building
machines — all 20 of them. It takes me about an hour.” When asked if he
walks to the center he laughed and said, “No. I drive, actually. But after the
sort of workout I usually give myself, I’m always glad I don’t have to walk

Encumbering Wartburg with $31 million of debt for a single building would
have seemed incomprehensible to the school’s longest-serving president. Dr.
C.H. Becker led the college during its period of most rapid growth, during the
1940s-1960s. When he retired in 1964, after 19 years in office, he told the
editor of the campus newspaper, The Wartburg Trumpet, that he had not
been permitted to borrow money for buildings during most of his tenure.

In that conversation, Becker said, “I remember how we struggled to find the
funds for new construction. We had to have the funds in hand. The American
Lutheran Church (which owned the college in those years) required cash on
the barrelhead.” He explained that when the college decided to build Knights
Gymnasium (which occupied some of the space where The W stands today),
“The costs overran the amount of money we knew we had in hand. We had to
go back to the drawing board and come up with a bare-bones version of the
building before they’d let us put it up.”

What did Wartburg and Waverly get for $31 million dollars? The W includes a
natatorium with lap pool, hot tub, and vortex; a recreation pool with water
slide; a climbing wall; an aerobics room; jogging track; racquetball courts;
basketball scrimmage courts; an athletic training room; and a basketball
arena where the college teams compete in conference matches.

In addition, the facility features a restaurant and a child care center. Massage
therapy is available.

Programs include “walk and talk” for seniors (which includes a weekly blood
pressure check); weight management for women; dance classes; “Junior Fit
Club” for kids ages 8-13; and an entire range of fitness classes.

Langel supervises a staff of eight, including a director of wellness health
promotion, director for fitness, and director for aquatics.
For more information about The W, visit