For 80-year-old Helen Rawls, the 12-mile drive to Prince William County's new multimillion-dollar fitness facility means nothing. As an avid exerciser, she has few other choices.

Commuting from Fauquier County, she expects to spend several days a week in aerobics classes, weightlifting and "maybe even a little fencing, if it's offered," at the Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, which officially opens to the public Sept. 27.

Illustrating a need for such an arena, Rawls is just one of more than 1,300 people who have already become members of the center. A dedication ceremony, held this week, symbolized an unusual partnership among Prince William County, George Mason University and the City of Manassas.

The 110,000-square-foot facility, touted as one of a kind in the county, sits on the Prince William campus of GMU and represents an $18.3 million effort to bring a modern and fully loaded health club to an underserved area.

To fund the construction, GMU sold $18 million in state revenue bonds backed by the financial obligation of the three partners. The debt service and operating budget is to be met with membership fees and a subsidy from the university, city and county, based on a usage ratio.

"This shows what cooperation can do and will do," Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-District 50) said at Wednesday's dedication ceremonies. "And it demonstrates how nicely it all comes together when done."

The two-story recreation complex, with its large windows and well-lighted interior, will offer a variety of exercise and aquatic facilities, as well as basketball and racquetball courts, a gymnasium and a child-care center. In the natatorium, a large, Olympic-style swimming pool is flanked by a 7,000-square-foot "leisure pool," with a slide and whirlpool targeted at children and families.

"This is just beautiful," Rawls said as she looked over the center. "It's a wonderful facility, and I can't wait to get started."

For Karen Nolan, who lives in Prince William, joining the Freedom Aquatic center is a way for her family to spend time together, she said as she held the hand of her 6-year-old son.

"I've never been involved in a fitness center before, but my husband has. So this is going to be something we can all do," Nolan said as she stood in line for the complimentary buffet of fruits, cheese and vegetables. "When I take this one to school, I'm going to come back here. And my daughter will practice with her high school swim team here at these pools. It's just a very impressive place."

Susan Phipps echoed Nolan's reaction.

"I think it's just fabulous," the 59-year-old Prince William resident said. "We needed something like this here. If people are smart, it will be well-used."

The center will have an area set aside for classrooms, and the university also plans to house its Health, Fitness and Recreation Resources Department there.

Raymond Harris, sales and membership coordinator for the facility, said that most of the center's members signed up before the dedication ceremony and that there were a "modest number of new applications." The center aims to get its membership base to at least 5,000 in its first year. The yearly rate for residents is $459 for an adult and $834 for a family of four, with a range of other plans. Residents of surrounding counties will pay 10 percent more.

But that hasn't deterred anyone from joining, and the event was attended by many from other counties who were hoping to get a glimpse of their new health club.

Manassas Mayor Marvin L. Gillum (R) said the state-of-the-art facility represents the "Disney of all fitness centers."

"We waited so long, and the need was so great, and now we can finally enjoy a place with a family focus," he said. "And this is something that will tie our entire community together."

The Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center will hold four open houses to answer questions, give tours and sign up members. The open houses will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. next Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26.