A new fitness court for downtown Janesville is a smart move for economic development. It will make downtown a more attractive place to work and should draw people who might also visit businesses, such as the farmer’s market, after their workouts.
As for helping to combat Rock County’s obesity problem, the project shouldn’t be expected to accomplish much. It’s not that we think the fitness court will go unused—we envision many people there. Rather, we doubt the court will be used much by the people who most need it.
Rock County is one of the least healthy counties in the state, ranking 65th of 72 counties in the 2017 County Health Rankings for health behaviors. An estimated 37 percent of Rock County residents are obese compared to the 30 percent statewide, but people here don’t lack exercise opportunities.
Janesville is known as the “city of parks” and boasts 30 miles of paved bike trails. The health survey shows Rock County ranks above average for access to exercise opportunities, with 87 percent of residents located near a park or recreational facility compared to 80 percent statewide. To believe a $110,000 fitness court will improve health outcomes is naive.
After all, access to exercise facilities isn’t the only factor affecting obesity rates. Poverty, education levels and availability of healthy foods also affect health outcomes, and local government alone isn’t going to solve these larger societal issues.
But local government can accomplish a humbler goal, namely using the fitness station to make the downtown more appealing. Most people using the court will probably be among the county’s healthiest, and their decision to exercise downtown—as opposed to at a gym or in their home—is what would make this project a success.
Public Works Director Paul Woodard is absolutely right in saying about the court, “The more activities you get downtown, the more people you can draw downtown.”
The 38-by-38-foot outdoor facility, to sit across from the new town square near the Court Street bridge, will blend perfectly into the ARISE initiative, the city’s action plan for revitalizing the downtown. The court will feature enough equipment to allow as many as 28 people to work out simultaneously.
It’s easy to imagine how someone completing a workout might then stroll to a local coffee shop or restaurant for breakfast. Beyond giving the area an economic boost, the court’s users will act as advertisements for the downtown, their toned, hard-working bodies projecting an image of vitality.
This project reaffirms both city officials’ and the private sector’s view of the downtown as something special and deserving of more attention than an ordinary commercial zone.
Janesville’s downtown must create synergy between businesses and public spaces to reach its potential, and the fitness court is a good example of the philosophy guiding downtown development.
While we don’t expect this court to make a dent in unhealthy lifestyles, it certainly won’t do any harm. Who knows? Perhaps the court will inspire some people to finally get off the couch and start exercising. That would be icing on the cake—er, hummus on the whole-grain pita bread—for Rock County.