Changing with the Times

How Cole Harbour Place flourishes amid an aging population and evolving industry norms

By fully integrating itself within the Dartmouth, NS, community, Cole Harbour Place has becoming a financially independent community centre.

In 1984, a group of community–minded individuals, keen to create a fitness centre for their rapidly growing rural community, gathered around a kitchen table and began the genesis of Cole Harbour Place.

In 2005, Cathy Burgess took over the directorship of this now-sprawling community centre. Over the quarter century that it has existed, Cole Harbour Place has grown to include a fitness centre, ice rinks, pools, weight rooms, a library, sports courts, a lifestyle and preventative-medicine centre, and a cardio room, among other components.

“It is very much a community facility—a one-stop shop—and it has an established place in the local community,” Burgess says.

“My staff members don’t sit in the office—they are out there, talking to people. We encourage that family atmosphere.” —Cathy Burgess, Director

According to Burgess, membership numbers vary, but somewhere above 1.2 million people pass through the doors of Cole Harbor Place during the course of the year. In order to maintain—and grow—these numbers, Burgess and her team are careful to observe the demographics of the local community, especially the growth in the number of seniors, and adapt membership options accordingly.

This adaptability is essential if Cole Harbour Place is to maintain its long-held position as a fulcrum around which the community moves. The growth of a local competitor, Good Life Fitness, has provided a notable challenge. But when Burgess took over as director, she discovered all the challenges weren’t outside the walls of the centre.

With children to raise, Burgess originally joined the centre as a part-time employee. Burgess, who has a successful background in nonprofit work, was tapped to cover the athletic director’s maternity leave.

“That gave me the opportunity to work in all the sports-program areas of the facility,” Burgess says.

When she was promoted in 2005, Burgess, taking over for the founding general manager, had a deep familiarity with the programming side of the facility. However, she discovered that the operational side of Cole Harbor Place and Halifax Regional Municipality was something of an “old boys” club.

“But they were very good with me,” she says. “I was often the only woman in the room, and I had to ask a lot of questions. It taught me a lot.”

This male-dominated culture has since diffused, with more women moving into senior-wellness-related positions throughout the province. This trend is as much a sign of the times as it is a shift in what facilities have been looking for when hiring.

“One of the big changes in hiring was the requirement for increased engagement from a general manager in terms of community involvement—not just running the facility from behind a desk,” Burgess says.

It’s a side of the job Burgess has relished, and she is now present on a number of committees within the community, deepening the relationship between Cole Harbor Place and its locality (this includes a jointly run harbour festival every September).

“It’s still a business [and] runs like a business, but we always strive to get more involved with the community,” Burgess says. “It’s all about getting to know our customers, and it is a big thing that my staff members don’t sit in the office—that they are out there on the floor, talking to people. We encourage that family atmosphere. And it goes a long way.”