November 26. 2012 9:00AM

Fitness center will serve people with disabilities

By Erica Breunlin

The Ability Center, a nonprofit organization, is raising funds in hopes of building a $53 million, 230,000-square-foot fitness, athletic and recreational facility in Milwaukee County for people with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Construction could begin in 2014 and be completed in 2015, if the fundraising campaign is successful.

The facility will be universally designed to accommodate people with disabilities but will also be usable for the able-bodied public.

Damian Buchman, founder and executive director of TAC, has made it his mission to offer people with disabilities more outlets for athletics and fitness since establishing TAC three years ago.

For Buchman, a one-in-a-billion childhood cancer survivor who has endured 20 major knee surgeries since recovery, the nonprofit fuels purpose in his life.

"The Ability Center for me is a way to honor my survivorship," Buchman said. "It's why I believe I'm alive. It's why I believe I survived when doctors from Milwaukee to New York think I should be dead."

Buchman conceived the idea behind TAC while developing another nonprofit organization, Super Gimp Services, in 2007 that concentrated on providing fitness and athletic services to people with disabilities. But after continually running into challenges of inaccessible space and inconsistent scheduling at area fitness facilities, he realized that in order to fully accommodate people with disabilities, they would need their own facility to call home.

Eight years spent running an athletic facility in Waukesha gave him the experience to begin building the vision for that home.

"I sat back and said, 'Why don't people with disabilities deserve those same opportunities that able-bodied people have?" Buchman said.

In 2009 the vision for TAC was officially born, and in January of 2011 a board of directors was constructed.

The nonprofit gained momentum and credibility after winning the 2011 Marquette University Business Plan Competition hosted by the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship. TAC won "Best Social Plan" on the basis of being progressive and visionary and having an answer of sustainability.

In moving forward with development, Buchman has devised a project management team with Bob Simi of Miron Construction Co.'s Milwaukee office, Ric Miller of Colgate-based Ric Miller Construction Consulting LLC, Kevin Barry of Milwaukee-based Cassidy Turley Barry, and Joshua Morby of Milwaukee-based Nation Consulting.

The project management team has created a three-year, four-phase plan for development with a goal to break ground in spring 2014 and open doors by June of 2015. The team will focus on raising enough capital over the next two to three months to keep the project rolling and within the next nine to 12 months aims to raise enough capital to break ground.

Fundraising efforts include asking individual and corporate donors for contributions and the launch of the 100,000 strong campaign, in which anyone from anywhere in the country can purchase square footage at TAC virtually and document online who they are, where they're from, and the significance of their exact square footage. The TAC team hopes to recruit 100,000 donors through the campaign so that the community on a nationwide basis has a sense of ownership over the facility.

The project management team is also currently working with Milwaukee County officials to determine a location for the facility. According to Buchman, 190,000 people in Southeastern Wisconsin report having a disability and 100,000 of them live in Milwaukee County.

Buchman emphasizes that the location must be easily accessible. The team will ensure it is accessible by both the Milwaukee County Transit System and Transit Plus, a Milwaukee County van line that caters to residents with disabilities.

"The key spot is in Milwaukee County and limits the number of transfers people need to make in the bus system in order to get there," Buchman said.

The project management team has identified some feasible sites and will take the next step to secure the land as soon as they feel ready, he said.

TAC has also facilitated relationships with a number of corporate partners including Barrientos Design & Consulting, Purple Onion Films, GS Design, Baker Tilly, and Branigan Communications. According to Buchman, TAC has secured more than $500,000 of in-kind support over the past year and a half.

In accommodating people with disabilities, TAC will feature modifications to make the space as accessible and as mobile as possible. Modifications will include automatic doors, two freight-type elevators that can fit several wheelchairs on one ride, family-style bathrooms that allow caretakers adequate room to help people with disabilities, and adaptive sporting and workout equipment.

Fifty-six percent of the facility's strength cardio and 31 percent of cardio equipment will be accessible to people with disabilities, compared to the usual 5 percent at standard fitness centers.

TAC board member Dr. Diane Braza, chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Medical College of Wisconsin, describes TAC as an innovative concept that will fulfill a considerable need in southeastern Wisconsin.

"Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation believes strongly in optimizing function for all individuals, with a focus to those with disabilities," Braza said. "We hold health, wellness and full participation in advanced activities of daily living, including sports, as fundamental values. We are very excited about the opportunity TAC envisions to accomplish this goal and we look forward to working closely together in this endeavor."

Buchman has a long-term vision to construct four large-scale TAC facilities throughout the country. He also hopes to inspire a standard of best practices at gyms nationwide through what he calls TAC's "revolutionary and evolutionary" approach to accessibility.

"We are successful when other facilities, other fitness venues, gyms, health clubs realize that they have to provide this level of accessibility to stay competitive," Buchman said.

The plan for TAC in southeastern Wisconsin is to remain sustainable through ongoing fees with an estimated yearly revenue of $5 million and projected yearly operating budget of $3 million. The nonprofit will offer financial assistance to families impacted by disabilities who demonstrate financial need. These members' fees will be subsidized by the fees of able-bodied members. Those on scholarship will only be able to keep their scholarship so long as they take advantage of TAC's facilities at least twice a week.

According to statistics from TAC, nearly 49 percent of families who have a child with a disability live in poverty. So providing affordable, accessible options is an integral part of TAC's mission.

Another component of the mission focuses on fighting obesity among populations impacted by disabilities. The statistics cited by TAC calculate that the obesity rate for adults with disabilities is 58 percent higher than able-bodied adults. Children with disabilities face a 38 percent higher obesity rate than children without disabilities.

Simi said that participating in the development of TAC has exposed him to the need for greater accessibility in building design.

"It's made me much more acutely sensitive to people with disabilities and subsequently more sensitive to the need for more universal design," he said.

Besides the building project, TAC also exists as an organization devoted to fostering athletic opportunities for people with disabilities and raising awareness about TAC. In addition to running a wheelchair basketball team called the Wisconsin Thunder, the organization conducts public wheelchair sports demonstrations at venues like the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Carroll University and Milwaukee Bucks games. During demonstrations, TAC invites the public to join in wheelchair sports games to gain firsthand perspective on the experience of playing in a wheelchair.

"We're out there in the community trying to raise awareness and build a level of adaptive sports in southeastern Wisconsin," Buchman said.

The organization also manages an inclusive initiative known as the Adaptive Scholastic Athletic Program, which Buchman launched two years ago. The program seeks to form competitive teams and conferences of young athletes with disabilities from different schools so that kids with disabilities have the same opportunities on the court and field as their able-bodied peers.

As TAC progresses, Buchman looks forward to the day he can walk through the facility's doors and see people impacted by disabilities come together with their able-bodied peers for fitness and recreational opportunities.

"When that's completed, I will have fulfilled my life mission," Buchman said.