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A community rec center project five decades in the making, The Wave was worth the wait, and is making a big splash in a small community.

“Maxima enim, patientia virtus.” The Latin phrase that reads, “Patience is the greatest virtue,” is quite popular — it’s a safe bet you’ve heard some variation of this saying, likely from your parents or a teacher.

The professional world values high productivity and instant gratification, so the importance of patience is often overlooked.

However, if not for an incredible amount of this virtue, Art Krueger would not hold the leadership position he does today, and The Wave Aquatic & Fitness Center might have remained a distant hope for the 7,600 residents of Whitefish, Montana.

“Patience is one of the key attributes I’ve been told I bring to the table,” said Krueger, who reached 15 years as the director of The Wave in August. “For my success, the key has been patience.”

And for the vision that ultimately produced The Wave — a sort of destination in and of itself — patience was also critical.

By the year 2000, Krueger had spent the mid-90s waiting for his shot, and The Wave had been an unrealized goal of Whitefish swimming enthusiasts for over 30 years, trapped in the mire of insufficient funds and underwhelming community support.

Everything changed in 2004. Following an inspiring fundraising effort, The Wave was under construction, and Krueger was hired as director. In February 2005, the brand-new, 55,000-square-foot, full-service fitness facility was an instant hit.

The rest is history. It was a long, arduous road that got Krueger and The Wave to this point, but the result has been worth the wait.

The Volunteer

Art Krueger was first introduced to community recreation as a child. Growing up in Montana, he spent most of his days playing basketball at the local YMCA.

“[The Y] has always been a place of good memories,” said Krueger. “My earliest memories are of playing ‘old man ball’ at the Y as an 11-year-old. Those guys were always inclusive, and that stuck with me.”

After college, his desired career path was a no-brainer. However, the biggest obstacle was a lack of job opportunities.

“When I was getting into the industry, there weren’t a lot of openings,” said Krueger. “So to get my foot in the door, I started volunteering — cleaning locker rooms, really doing anything I could. I was literally volunteering 40 to 50 hours a week for six months, because I knew if I had enough patience, I could get in.”

He volunteered at HealthWorks in Great Falls, Montana, and then earned his first position teaching classes at Benefis Health Care, which led to a program director position at Peak Health and Wellness Center.

Every step of the way, where most would get discouraged, Krueger saw opportunities to prove himself. And in 2004, his determination truly paid off when he was contacted by Doug Mahlum.

Mahlum, the CEO of Planetary Fitness Consulting (which runs the daily operations at health and wellness facilities across Montana), had followed Krueger’s work, and made him an offer to be the director of a brand-new facility in Whitefish.

The Wave: A 40-Year Project

The Wave opened its doors in 2005. However, years prior, the community didn’t want a full-service fitness facility — just an outdoor pool for swim team practices.

In the 1960s, as an alternative to the local swim team practicing in the lake, a few Whitefish families attempted to organize fundraising for a community pool.

“‘The Bullfrogs’ practiced at Whitefish Lake City Beach, between two docks,” explained Krueger. “The temperature of that water was not ideal — in the best summers, the lake temperature only gets to 78 degrees.”

Unfortunately, the plan never generated enough funds or attention. “Like many ideas that involve fundraising, the project just never really took off,” said Krueger.

Over the years, several other iterations of the pool project surfaced, but never gained traction. But in 2000, Dan Weinberg, a current member of The Wave board of directors and member of the Montana State Senate from 2005 to 2009, took it upon himself to bring the vision to life.

“Dan read an article claiming yet another pool project bit the dust,” recalled Krueger. “He wanted to help, so he formed a group of volunteers to get behind the project, looking to build a multi-purpose, $7.5 million facility.”

It was a bold plan. “Anyone with business sense can do the math and realize that without a substantial assist from donors and large membership base, this project wasn’t likely to succeed,” said Krueger.

Everything hinged on money — first to build the facility, then maintain operations afterward. However, despite the many previous setbacks The Wave had hit over the years, Weinberg and his team of volunteers — many of whom would go on to become board members for the facility — were able to raise the necessary funds and garner an astounding amount of community support.

“Not to be deterred, the board was able to raise $5 million in pledges and develop a plan with nearly every banking institution in the community,” recalled Krueger.

As per the financial agreement, the facility was donated to the city of Whitefish, and in turn was leased to The Wave for 70 years, as explained by Jill Jacobson, the president of The Wave board of directors.

And after patiently waiting 40 years for such a facility, local residents couldn’t sign up quickly enough. “When the doors opened, we surpassed our initial projections with over 3,000 total members,” explained Krueger. “We also had just under 5,000 people come to our grand opening.”

Even today, that initial support from community members still astounds Krueger. “The real kicker is at the time The Wave was being built, Whitefish had roughly 6,500 residents,” he joked.

Big Fish, Small Pond

A lot can happen in 15 years. Since 2004, the population of Whitefish has grown by roughly 1,100 people, while The Wave’s membership count has doubled.

“Today, we operate with an average of 6,750 members — nearly equal to the population of Whitefish itself,” said Krueger. “We have averaged somewhere around 25,000 to 40,000 visits per month, depending on the time of year.”

The crowned jewel of Whitefish’s fitness community has only seen greater success through the years, instead of memberships understandably tapering off after the initial excitement of opening the facility.

Located in a small town, how is The Wave able to pull in membership numbers like a large market facility? “Community, community, community,” said Mahlum. “Our overarching goal is to become a part of the everyday life of Whitefish. You can only do that by extending yourself into every community activity possible.”

In fact, The Wave supports any sports-related event, fundraiser or family-oriented event in Whitefish, often hosting many of these events.

While community involvement is always a healthy practice, posting such strong membership numbers often takes a little help. Much of The Wave’s success is due to the active nature of Whitefish itself.

“This is a fairly active community,” said Krueger. “Many people live here because of the many opportunities for outdoor recreation.”

To say Whitefish is “outdoorsy” is an understatement. Though the community is small, the surrounding area is teeming with opportunities for outdoor adventures, with anything from skiing at the Whitefish Mountain Resort to hiking and camping in Glacier National Park.

Another trend that contributes to The Wave’s continued success is an increasingly health-conscious population. “The fitness industry is on an upswing,” said Krueger. “People are more conscious of their health and the fact that it’s not a passive thing.”

Even though the Whitefish population isn’t booming, a high percentage of the community is committed to exercising and staying active. And keeping its members engaged is where The Wave thrives.

“If you put your operator’s hat on, you know we’re not going to just find another 600 members,” joked Krueger. “They’re not there. So we have to take a hard look at retention and how we can improve the experience.”

Because We Care

“We did an exercise years ago, with dozens of employees, to identify the glue that binds us together,” explained Krueger. “We came up with three words that really entail our staff: ‘because we care.’”

These three simple words encapsulate The Wave’s commitment to being the community’s hub for health and wellness. From its conception in the early 2000s, the facility’s purpose was always as a community resource. “The Wave is dedicated to the health and well-being of the community,” said Jacobson. “The programs and services The Wave offers are extensive, and it is truly the cornerstone of health in Whitefish.”

A building is only as inviting as its employees, so The Wave staff takes a personal interest in each member. “Our incredible staff work hard every day to provide a clean, friendly and warm environment,” said Jacobson. “The Wave has incredible personal trainers and instructors who are experts and offer incredible workouts.”

Among those incredible workouts and services are “Elevate” programs — which include personal training, health coaching, Pilates and fascial stretch therapy — that are designed to enhance members’ lives. But one of the most popular community benefit programs is “School to Pool,” which gives children in grade school swim lessons for free or at reduced costs.

“The amount of swim lessons we’ve done measures in the tens of thousands,” said Krueger. “I truly believe through School to Pool and our Red Cross swim lessons, we’ve saved a child’s life.”

The Wave has been a staple of Whitefish since opening. However, soon after it opened, the organization discovered the membership was outgrowing the space.

“We opened with numbers we thought we wouldn’t hit at least until year two,” said Krueger. “Obviously, we were excited, but the discussions of an expansion started literally within a month after we opened.”

This renovation was completed in 2007. “That first expansion added some square footage in our fitness areas,” explained Krueger. “We were grossly undersized for our weight room and stretching areas.”

But The Wave wasn’t done, undergoing another renovation in 2014 that focused on its family and group exercise spaces.

“We put in a new Group X studio as part of this expansion and doubled the size of our drop-in childcare,” said Krueger.

The Wave continues to evolve its technology offerings as well. “We have some cool tech we employ here, such as Les Mills and FitnessOnDemand classes,” said Krueger. “We’re always figuring out ways to get outside our four walls.”

For over a decade, The Wave has been a community hub for health and wellness. And as the industry and community change, The Wave will change with them.

“This isn’t a ‘build it and they will come’ model,” said Mahlum. “It’s a ‘find out what they want and fulfill those needs’ facility.”

A big fish in a small pond, The Wave has far exceeded expectations. Once a longshot pool project, The Wave has rewarded Whitefish for standing behind it through rigorous fundraising and planning.

“I’m proud of how the community got together, helped make this happen, and helped sustain it,” said Krueger. “We’re having a huge impact on people’s lives.”

All it took was a little patience.

Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the former editor of Community Rec Magazine.

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