Bethel receives $9 million to expand gym at community fitness center


a building in the tundra
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center in Bethel, photographed in 2014. The empty area on the right side of the photo is where a new gym for the community will be built. (Geraldine Brink)

Bethel's municipal swimming pool and fitness center are located on the edge of a large swath of tundra – and that was intentional. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center was built with the potential for expansion.

And thanks to a $9 million federal grant Bethel is receiving from the state of Alaska, the city is now working on that expansion, which will add a gymnasium to the fitness center building.

Bethel City Clerk Lori Strickler said there are several essential elements: a basketball court, community spaces and a computer lab for the community.

“Our goal is to provide the community with free internet access, computer access and printers. There will also be the only public gym Bethel can ever offer – and all Bethel residents and visitors will be able to use it,” Strickler said.

Beyond those basic elements, what the expansion will look like is not yet set in stone. Strickler said the original design for the gym was estimated to cost about $18 million, double the amount the city was able to raise.

“There was also a sauna and additional fitness rooms. So it wasn't the traditional square gym that many people would imagine. It had a lot of corners,” Strickler explained. “So at only $9 million, we're not sure what will come out of it. But there will be common rooms for games and socializing, there will be a computer lab and there will be sports rooms, a gym for basketball, volleyball and the general recreational activities.”

Other elements of the facility, such as additional locker rooms and bathrooms, a sauna or a running track above the gym, will be designed as optional elements to meet funding constraints.

“Hopefully by the end of the fall we'll have a better idea of ​​how big it will be,” Strickler said. “But regardless, it will provide a safe, warm place for people to play year-round. And to provide social opportunities that this community sometimes lacks.”

The $9 million grant is in addition to an initial $500,000 grant from the state of Alaska that is funding the facility's planning. Strickler said the money must be spent by the end of 2026, which doesn't leave much room for construction on the land. But, she said, it's an important community project.

“I know a lot of people like to go outside and play, but it will be nice for the kids to have a roof over their heads so they can shoot some hoops and play volleyball outside of the school-sponsored events. So we're looking forward to that,” Strickler said.

Strickler said the city has applied for an additional $4 million in grants for the project: $2 million from the Denali Commission and $2 million from Alaska's congressional delegation through Senator Lisa Murkowski's office. Whether those applications are successful won't be known for several months.

Strickler said the city hopes to have the facility completed by fall and to prepare a bid to begin construction to meet the 2026 funding deadline.