Thank you, McDonald’s

Kroc Center goes all in for fun, fitness, and healthy lifestyles.



Billions have been served but only dozens were chosen. And not all of them panned out.

The Memphis Kroc Community Center at the fairgrounds is one of 27 centers in the country that were inspired and funded in large part by a $1.5 billion gift from McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and his wife Joan to the Salvation Army. The grand opening is this Saturday and Sunday, and you really have to see it to appreciate it.


An indoor pool for swimmers and non-swimmers, with water cannons, depth charges, dump buckets, waterslide, basketball goals, and squirt stations, in addition to lap lanes. An outdoor splash park. A gym with basketball courts, stages for bands, and an artificial-turf-covered area for soccer and lacrosse. A high-tech "challenge center" with ropes course, zip-lines, lasers, and mental and physical challenges suitable for small groups and companies recovering from the trauma of bonding via paint ball and karaoke. Two outdoor soccer fields and indoor fitness areas with personal trainers, Zumba, muay thai kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Concessions serving healthy food planned by a chef with dual degrees in Christian education and culinary arts. The words "burgers, fries, and shakes" do not appear in the program guide.

How will all of this play out? Too early to say. Each center tries to meet needs and fill in gaps in its host city. The only stipulation is that it be centrally located and strive to serve a diverse clientele. The Memphis Kroc is ambitious and different. That's the point.

There are scaled-down versions of the long-gone waterslides at Libertyland and Adventure River, the river model at Mud Island River Park, the environmentally friendly playground at Shelby Farms, and the row upon row of stationary bicycles and treadmills at Lifetime Fitness. There is serious attention to arts, special events, and worship.

"We're going to keep on doing what we've been doing," said Ellen Westbrook, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Memphis, which provides shelters for homeless men and women, disaster relief, and food for the hungry and always seems to be there when needed for the last 113 years.

The founder of the Salvation Army was General William Booth, a bearded evangelist who began his work in London in 1865, adopting the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers." His words that inspired Ray and Joan Kroc bear repeating:

"While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight. While little children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight. While men go to prison, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight. While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end!"

The Kroc $60 million challenge grant, announced in 2005, was matched by $25 million raised locally over the next four years by the Salvation Army in Memphis, which purchased 15 acres along East Parkway at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in 2006. Groundbreaking was in 2010, but construction delays pushed the opening back to this year. The challenge now is to keep it going.

A single membership is $30 a month. A day pass is $5. There are specials for charter members who sign up before Saturday. The goal is to get members from all income groups and all of Shelby County.

Easier said than done. We live in a time of sports specialization and self-segregation. But Kroc signed up corporate sponsors, including FedEx, AutoZone, and Baptist Memorial Hospital. It has built a relationship with its neighbors in Cooper-Young and Christian Brothers University. And it has hired experienced club managers, instructors, camp directors, techies, and outside-the-box jocks like Ty Cobb, the Ole Miss cheerleader who became a basketball halftime celebrity with his Daredevils dunkers.

After a building binge for professional sports highlighted by AutoZone Park and FedExForum, Memphis government, corporations, and philanthropists turned their attention to sporty things ordinary Memphians can do, such as the Greenline, the skate park, bike lanes, Shelby Farms Park, and the overall fairgrounds redevelopment plan the Memphis City Council was talking about this week.

Whether that continues will depend on how well the Kroc Center is received. I think it's as carefully thought out and executed as any public facility I've seen. Check it out.

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