Published October 27. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - At Summit Fitness and Sports, tennis was no longer paying the bills.
So owners Henry and Jolene Bowers made the bold move to remove the one tennis court that remained at the fitness club and combine the resulting square footage with some extra space from a departed gymnastics operation to create an all-purpose indoor playing facility that they say is the largest in the region.
The Astroturf field, 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, took a full week to lay down earlier this month. It includes 40,000 pounds of rubber underneath that help cushion the fall of players during competitions.
The first indoor soccer league is expected to begin using the facility Nov. 4. Leagues will run in three eight-week sessions.
"We think it's a community asset," Henry Bowers said during a tour of the facility last week. "There isn't anything like it in the region."
Bowers said many local youth soccer programs in the past have had to practice out of town during the colder months of the year to find a comparable facility. Work Out World in Waterford, he added, has a smaller field, with boards similar to hockey, which creates a much different environment than Summit's more wide-open facility.
Summit, formerly a World Gym franchise but now an independent operation, once was known as Norwich Racquet Club. Twenty-five years ago, the club's emphasis was tennis, and the five courts there were a swirl of activity.
But times have changed, and tennis activity has waned. Jolene Bowers said youth tennis was still popular, and older players who enjoyed the sport in its heyday of the 1970s remained active, but few young men and women continued playing beyond high school.
"There were no middle-of-the-road players," she said.
Henry Bowers, an accomplished player himself, said one of the few active tennis groups at the club has decided to move its regular game to East Hartford. Others had shifted their competitive play to facilities in East Lyme, Old Mystic, Old Saybrook and Westerly where tennis was a more central part of club life.
Meanwhile, the Bowerses have been focusing on marketing the 20,000-square-foot rectangular space, starting with the key youth soccer ages of 8 to 14. Youth soccer coach Justin Cook of Montville, a key adviser for the project, said signups so far have already met the first-year goal, with teams from East Lyme, Groton, Montville, Colchester and Plainfield already in the mix.
The indoor field is about half the size of a regulation soccer field, limiting competitions to seven-on-seven contests rather than 11-on-11 seen in outdoor play.
"They have to travel distances now or they don't get to play," Bowers said.
Bowers said youth lacrosse also has been growing exponentially nationwide, and the field could be used for a variety of other purposes, including summer camps, Ultimate Frisbee, jogging, volleyball or other fitness activities.
Up to three different activities can be going on at any one time. The facility even has a basketball hoop that could be used as part of a group activity.
"There's a lot of flexibility, a lot of options," Bowers said.
For the Bowerses, the new indoor field represents another way to tap a constantly evolving fitness market. Thirty-five years ago, racquetball was the trendy sport, but more recently group activities such as yoga, zumba and step aerobics have taken off, all neatly contained in a vividly colored and generously mirrored exercise room.
Summit offers 130 classes a month that are open to both members and non-members. The idea is to encourage people's initial attempts at improving their health to get them through the initial six-week period when many people drop out of a club membership.
"We have programs for all fitness levels," Jolene Bowers said. "We have workout plans. That's how people will get results and stay on track."
It's also how Summit earns extra income, since the classes are an add-on to the club's normal $10-a-month gym membership, a price that largely has been shaped by competition with the national chain Planet Fitness.
The new indoor facility will be another source of income, with its own separate entrance. Activities will likely begin about 6 p.m. on weekdays, the Bowerses said, but weekends will be busy all day.
"We expect to be pretty crowded," Henry Bowers said. "The biggest challenge is programming during the day."
The Bowerses are trying to tap into nonprofit schools and the home-school community, among other constituencies, to fill as many time slots as possible.
The facility includes heat and air conditioning, as well as bathrooms and changing areas.
Henry Bowers, former soccer coach at Griswold High School, said he envisions adults using the facility as well, including those involved in restaurant leagues who sometimes play soccer late into the night.
"This will continue to be the Norwich community center of sorts," Jolene Bowers said. "We're not just an adult gym; we're a family affair."