The much-anticipated and long-awaited expansion of the New Tampa Recreation Center (NTRC) in Tampa Palms, which dates all the way back to the day the facility debuted in 2008 with a waiting list of more than 1,000 kids, has finally come to fruition.

Today at 3:30 p.m., almost two years to the day of the expansion’s groundbreaking on April 12, 2019, the NTRC will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony and reopen with 7,300 square feet of extra space, featuring three new rooms (convertible to five, with partitions) that will provide new space for gymnastics and dance instruction, community meetings, adult and senior fitness classes and athletic training.

The expansion cost roughly $2.6-million, after years of budget battles that saw the long-planned project get passed over in 2012 and again in 2016.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, who as the District 7 Council member, helped rally New Tampa residents, led by Tampa Palms attorney Tracy Falkowitz, to show up at the budget deliberations in 2017 and implore the Council to keep the money in the budget for the project.

The end result will expand not only the NTRC’s profile, but also its reach.

“We’re known for gymnastics and dance classes, but the expansion makes us more than that,” said Heather Wolf-Erickson, the athletics, aquatics and special facilities manager for the City of Tampa’s Parks & Recreation Department, who took us on a tour of the new add-on prior to the March 3 opening. “Kids are one aspect of a family, but we also wanted to give the parents that sit here during the practices an opportunity to do some fitness classes and other things, too.”

Wolf-Erickson also is excited about offering classes for older residents, as well as space for community gatherings and meetings. All of that will be available in the first multi-purpose room you pass upon entering the expanded facility, which has a partition to give it more flexibility to host two classes at once.

“We can get a little more creative with what we can offer (now),” Wolf-Erickson says.

The “fun” room

Next to that room is what Wolf-Erickson calls the “fun” room — a new mini-gym for those just starting out in gymnastics, typically ages 5-and-below.

The space was designed for “the littles” who, until now, had to share space with the bigger kids in the NTRC’s large 12,500-sq.-ft. main gymnasium. Now, instead of being lost in a forest of taller gymnasts, the younger kids have a great new space of their own.

“It’s easy to get distracted (in the main gymnastics area),” said Linda Hall, Site Supervisor II for the City of Tampa. “When the big kids are in there, they’re doing big kid (moves) and it’s easy (for the younger kids) to get distracted.”

Also making the new room unique is the equipment itself, like the rings and parallel bars, which are smaller to fit smaller hands. And, an inflatable trampoline and foam ball pit are used for practicing jumping and flipping.

“Everything is catered to them,” Wolf-Erickson says of the new room. “We’re not teaching them any big gymnastic moves in here, we’re working on upper-body strength, hand-eye coordination and patience. When kids have fun learning and doing physical things, they’re more apt to come back.”

Adjustable Batting Cage, Too

Wolf-Erickson says her favorite room is the 1,760-sq.-ft. rectangular training “box,” which resembles popular, more rustic training facilities that look like warehouses, with large fans, a garage door that opens and even a batting cage that is stored above the floor and can be lowered with the press of a button.

Baseball and softball athletes will be the obvious beneficiaries of the batting cage, but when the cage is suspended above the floor, the area can be used for almost any kind of training, from football to soccer to any kind of fitness and weight training. It also will come in handy on rainy days.

“This space is going to get used and used and used,” Wolf-Erickson said. “When designing it, they asked, ‘What are you going to do there?’ We said we’ll show you. It’s just a little bit more different than what we’ve done here. (This room) will be more open to the community.”

While technically part of the NTRC expansion, the training box is practically its own separate space. It has its own climate control, separate from the rest of the facility, and the door leading in from the rest of the expanded spaces can be locked down, with a door leading outside (and inside, monitored by a keypad) for those who are training later than regular building hours.

“We can have this open 24/7 without impacting the staffing requirement,” Wolf-Erickson said. “It is its own space, with its own restroom. It was pretty well thought out.”

In fact, all three of the new spaces have their own restrooms, and there will be another bathroom that can be accessed from the playground, a touch sure to be appreciated by parents.

The two rooms with dance and gymnastics also have multiple large windows for parents to watch their children, similar to the rooms in the main building.

After years of having to turn folks away, or at least put them on a waiting list that had as many as 1,800 kids on it, Wolf-Erickson hopes the new space gets children off the waiting lists and helps free up more room for more students to sign up. Pre-Covid, the NTRC had more than 4,000 class slots programmed each week, and saw nearly 8,000 gymnasts and dancers receive training every year at the popular facility. 

Wolf-Erickson said she wants to see the community, from beginners all the way to seniors, utilize the facility for exercise, training and other events. While all those things may be offered at other places in the area, Wolf-Erickson says the plans for the pricing and community memberships at the NTRC are still being finalized, “But we believe it should be affordable, and we won’t be out-priced here,” she says.

For more info, call (813) 975-2794 or visit Tampa.Gov/parks-and-recreation/activities-recreation/gym-and-dance/new-tampa-center.

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