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story.lead_photo.caption The 22,000-square-foot gymnasium in the Wellness Center is surrounded by an elevated running-walking track. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Aaron Grefrath's almost two-decades-old professional career and most of his adult life have been engaged in the recreation field.

On Thursday, he took his good luck charm — a potted plant his daughter Nicole gave him 10 years ago — and moved from the City Annex on Monroe Street to a new home away from home, all 79,808 square feet of the Lincoln University Wellness and Parks Multi-Purpose Recreation Center.

Grefrath, who became assistant director of the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department Jan. 11, also is the resident manager of the center, supervising 10 executive staffers and perhaps 20 other part-time instructors, trainers and miscellaneous personnel he's currently interviewing and soon will hire.

Todd Spalding, the Parks director, is referring to Grefrath, a lifelong Jefferson Citian, as "the gentleman who will be running the building."

Whatever his new title, Grefrath doesn't have long to get that plant re-potted, watered and acclimated to his new address. Parks' first event is a Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) regional basketball tournament Feb. 18, expected to attract 850-950 people.

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Two days later, on Feb. 20, the so-called "soft opening" of the Wellness Center is scheduled, as Spalding first announced at last Monday's City Council meeting.

Open 365 days a year, the new Jefferson City destination will boast 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours most of those days. After Feb. 16, the public can reserve the joint Lincoln-Parks venue by calling 573-634-6482 or by visiting the front counter — staffed by Parks personnel — at 1299 Lafayette St. and determining fees and availability.

Those two words, "soft opening," describe the first day members of the public can try their basketball dribble, volleyball serve and pickleball volley on the 46,800 square feet of space on the main floor, which is being called the recreation center. That area features accommodations for caterers, storage and restrooms — but no showers. Showers are not part of the new age of recreation centers, Grefrath said. What visitors will find are billboard-size logos for Parks and Lincoln, dominating the wall opposite the doors into the fieldhouse, where backboard and net movements are hands-free, controlled by computers.

Adjacent to the recreation center, across a vast reception area and countertop, is an administration center, which provides offices, classrooms, a concession space, a commons, work stations, a copy room and shelves, and an employee break room. Wide-screen TV monitors are positioned throughout the entryways, projecting information much like those at airports.

The second level — 23,400 square feet of it — is noted for its three-lane walking and jogging track, with on-grade access. The upper floor offers two additional Lincoln classrooms, a fitness center with 21st century machines and free weights illuminated by LED overheads, and floor-to-ceiling windows. The level also is home to a roomy entertainment area being called a game room, at least for the time being, with a spacious serving and food-preparation niche, all opening to a broad patio overlooking Dwight T. Reed Stadium.

The indoor track will display signs asking walkers and joggers to move in opposite directions on successive days, Grefrath joked, already attentive to the lifespan of its surface.

Spalding, Grefrath and others who will continue to conduct tours for weeks to come will exhibit a community room, which can be partitioned into three sound-proof units as needed. Each of the room's three elements is equipped with state-of-the-art screens and projectors.

The main and upper floors will be accessible to the general public, as well as to Lincoln students, staff, alumni and faculty. There are fees for admission and use, but Grefrath, Spalding and their Lincoln counterparts — led by President Kevin Rome, Executive Director of Design and Construction Sheila Gassner and cohorts — are even now deciding details of the use of the Wellness Center during the soft opening and grand opening celebrations, Grefrath said.

Admission to the 9,800-square-foot lower level is another matter all together. It will be off limits to the public.

That's where Lincoln Athletic Director John Moseley will create a home for the Blue Tigers football team and national champion-caliber men's and women's track and field teams. The latter two squads do not now have a space they call their own on the Lincoln campus, Moseley said.

At their meeting Thursday, LU's curators approved a $2.5 million bond issue that includes $780,446 to spend on finishing, furnishing and decorating the Blue Tigers' new locker rooms, training room and offices in the Wellness Center basement.

That work is expected to be done before the football season begins.

Each athlete will have his or her own wooden locker, Moseley said, hinting at a fundraising opportunity for fans.

Grefrath and his staff will be engaged in ongoing training in February as they await arrival of the corresponding Lincoln staff, expected to begin their employment at the Wellness Center Feb. 15. Grefrath anticipates regular coordination with the Lincoln staff.

When the Parks and Lincoln teams are at full strength, they will welcome visitors into a cavernous building with roomy lobbies, corridors, stairwells, an elevator and vestibules — all the work of The Architects Alliance, led by Cary Gampher and project manager Michael J. Carafeno, and general contractor Sircal Inc., guided by president Chris Hentges.

All of this might be considered a daunting task for the "gentleman" who joined the department after spending the previous nine years as activity center director for State Technical College of Missouri and the nine years before that as senior program director for the Jefferson City Area YMCA. Grefrath earned a bachelor's degree in physical education from Lincoln and a master's degree in athletics and activities administration from William Woods University.

Preparing for the demands of the Wellness Center management gig, Grefrath has been a hands-on practitioner of about all his chosen field offers. He was responsible for planning, implementing and evaluating programs ranging from fitness classes to youth and adult sports leagues and tournaments at State Tech. That position required him to manage day-to-day operations of the facility while supervising full-time and part-time staffers. As a YMCA leader, Grefrath supervised aquatics, the climbing wall, the front desk, gymnastics, and youth and adult sports.

Grefrath and the Parks staff have been training on the operations of the Wellness Center since last Thursday, learning the nuance of turning on the lights and commanding basketball goals and volleyball nets to go up and down on computerized commands.

On Thursday, the day they finally left the City Annex for Lincoln's campus, Grefrath and his team were to train on the syncing of the Italian-made, Olympics-quality Techno Gym equipment, as well as the Hammer Strength line of free weights in the eye-popping, muscle-manufacturing fitness center.

Around them, signs were popping up everywhere, an exercise expected to continue for several days as hundreds of doors, cubby holes, cabinets and shelves were christened.

Anticipating the big day, Parks furniture had been delivered earlier in the week. Grefrath and his colleagues had boxed up their files, desk accessories, pictures, favorite coffee mugs, souvenirs, sports memorabilia, miscellaneous clutter and any potted plants of their own in anticipation of the physical move into their new quarters on the ground floor of the three-level landmark at Lincoln University.

Make no mistake, the gentleman who is running the building said, there is much left to do before the Wellness Center is running as smoothly as he and Spalding would like.

"I'm excited beyond words," Grefrath said. "I think we're ready. The Wi-Fi may not be perfect, but we've tested our telephones and other communications line, and we know we're going to be able to get to the internet, the TVs are going to work, and we've got power everywhere we need it. There'll be changes along the way as we shake off the newness here, but it's going to be exciting every step of the way."

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