Thousands visit Augusta Kroc Center for grand opening

Only four hours into Saturday's Salvation Army Kroc Center grand opening, about 2,000 free hot dogs had been served, nearly 100 free massages given, countless pictures taken, and thousands of visitors had been entertained, educated, exercised and inspired.

"The crowd today is a blessing," said Capt. Todd Mason, the administrator of The Salvation Army of Augusta. "We've got people from all over the greater Augusta area."

Seven years in the making, the 100,000-square-foot fitness, recreation, aquatics and arts center in Harrisburg community opened on a limited basis three weeks ago, with 500 memberships selling the first week.

First-comers to the grand opening were treated to a performance by the Salvation Army Band in the Franklynn Hall Arts and Worship Center, which seats 400, stadium-style in front of the large stage. The line of parents and children was long in the community wing, where members of the Augusta GreenJackets baseball team signed autographs, gave out hats and posed for pictures.

Though the atmosphere was cultured and peaceful throughout the center, some good-natured trash talk started up in the gymnasium, where the bleachers quickly filled for a dodgeball game between Team Media and Team Government. Led by Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken and Richmond County sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles, Team Government consisted of some Augusta and Columbia County commission members, administrators and department directors, and staff members of U.S. Rep. Paul Broun.

Team Media's captains were Austin Rhodes, of WGAC radio, and Helen Blocker-Adams, of HBA Group International. Other members of the team included reporters, a meteorologist and anchor of three television stations, and writers and staffers of The Augusta Chronicle and The Metro Spirit .

Although the game was the best of three rounds, Team Government won in two.

"We're all ecstatic about beating Austin Rhodes, because he beats us up all the time on his show," Aitken said. "That was our motivation for coming."

"Unfortunately, we're amateurs and they're pros at dodging the media," Rhodes countered.

The crowd moved to the aquatics center to watch dodgeball winners take a victory-ride down the Kroc's 28-foot-tall, 190-foot-long water slide after the game.

Mason initiated the water slide thrills by being the first to go down, dressed in full-dress uniform.

"Four years ago, my staff said, 'Will you?' and I said, 'Yes,' " he explained.

Many who entered the aquatics center gaped in awe when they saw the water slide, leisure pool, kids splash pad, lap pool, lazy river and spa.

"I watch my grandkids, so the pool is kind of a godsend for us grandparents," said Jeannine Rich, a Harrisburg resident who was one of the first 500 to join the center.

The center's three gyms total more than 17,000 square feet of workout space and equipment.

"It's got state-of-the-art equipment," Michelle Bovian said. "It will inspire me to work out. They did a beautiful job on the building."

"As a person who has diabetes, it's the perfect set up to get in shape and help lower my blood sugars," said her husband, Scott.

Helen Brunson took advantage of the massage.

"It's like living on clouds," she said of the experience. "I've been coming to the church here for the last three Sundays, and it's really great. They speak the truth, it's backed up by Scripture and they have people give testimonies. It's great."

Program Assistant Wendy Kinley said the church is nondenominational, "open to anyone -- come as you are," and includes Sunday school, child care and a children's ministry.

Salvation Army Kroc centers nationwide are funded through private donations and a $1.7 billion bequest from the late Joan Kroc.

Operations are paid for by membership fees and an endowment, which allow the Salvation Army to offer discounted rates to low-income applicants.