Grand Junction’s finally getting a rec center after decades of work. That includes an old high school senior project

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Lucas Bullen Grand Junction rec center
Ryan Warner/CPR News
Lucas Bullen points to the site of what will be Grand Junction’s first public recreation center. It’s a project he’s been working on since high school and voters finally approved the project after several failed attempts.

Twenty-three years ago, as a high school senior with a plan to better his community, Lucas Bullen was invited to a breakfast with the Grand Junction City Council where he’d get his first taste of how messy municipal government can be. 

Bullen’s arc is one chapter in the larger effort to bring a community recreation center to Grand Junction — something that was first pitched in the 1970s and only finally passed in April. Bullen grew up in Grand Junction but visited family on the Front Range often.

That’s where he fell in love with rec centers and, when it came time for a senior project, he sought to get one built.

“My uncle had a rec center very close to his house, and it was kind of a new concept. One had just been built and he took us there on a weekend and it was great because we were able to jump from activity to activity. We went from the swimming pool to the gym where we were able to play basketball. We went and played Wallyball, all kinds of activities,” Bullen said. “But the nice thing was it was all under one roof.”

A meeting with city council turns out to be an 'ambush'

Bullen says now that he didn’t realize how much he’d bitten off with the project. But, his group saw it through. They developed a plan and started meeting with the relevant parties before things climbed all the way up to Grand Junction’s power brokers.

“We were meeting with Parks and Recreation, had a couple community meetings. It felt like the community was supportive of our idea. And then we got a letter in the mail. Didn't have email back then, but got a letter in the mail and it said, ‘We'd like you to come have breakfast with us,’” Bullen recalled. “And it was from city council.”

But it wasn’t just city council he’d be talking to.

“They had also invited all the local private gym owners to the same breakfast. And the gym owners were very much opposed to the idea of a public recreation center,” Bullen said, adding that in hindsight it was a bit of an ambush. 

Concern about public competition with private gyms has been present throughout the various rec center efforts. But even back in 2000, Bullen made the case that the two could coexist. 

“I do recall at least one of the gym owners was very vocal about how they provide all the services that the community needs at their facility. And I argued that as a teen — or even as a child — that I didn't feel included in those facilities where I didn't have the chance to go into the pool any given day,” Bullen said. “I also had grandparents who obviously I just saw their level of activities, and I didn't see as a teenager at that time, having gone into the gym and been more of a regular user, I didn't see equipment and classes that kind of catered to senior citizens.”

The ballot measure that came out of Bullen’s project failed, but he got an A on the assignment. Bullen had actually left for the Air Force by the time the vote happened. It’d be about two more decades — and another failed rec center vote in 2019 — before he came back to the Grand Valley.

“Thankfully, I had started a job post in the Air Force that allowed me to work remotely, so I saw an opportunity to come back here and be close to grandparents for my kids,” he said.

And when Bullen returned, a renewed effort at getting a rec center was underway.

A committee was once again working to build support for a tax increase — paired with revenues from newly approved retail cannabis sales — that would build the facility at Matchett Park, a piece of undeveloped land that the city of Grand Junction has had for years and the original site of Bullen’s proposal almost a quarter-century ago.

That measure did succeed this April, and by a comfortable margin.

Grand Junction Recreation Center Feasibility Study
Renderings show the potential design of the Grand Junction Community Recreation Center that voters approved in April.
Grand Junction Recreation Center Feasibility Study

“I think it's showing that the community is starting to focus on things for the community. Not so much just ‘what is this going to do for me?’” Bullen said. “I think the focus is now on, okay, how does this help our community and people understanding what approving something like this can do for the community.”

The recreation center is tentatively set to open late 2025, which will give Bullen’s two children a chance at the same wonder he experienced all those years ago on the Front Range. 

“In two years when this is all completed, I'll be extremely excited to bring them. And I think they're still a little confused about what a rec center is, so I've had to explain it to them,” Bullen said. “There were some private facilities over on the Front Range that cost a lot of money to go into, and I reminded them of those types of facilities and I said, this will be kind of like that, but more accessible.”