Downtown YMCA needs major remodel

The "gang" showers in the locker rooms at Duluth's downtown YMCA are one way to spot the age of the 42-year-old facility: Seven showerheads on a 20-foot tiled wall, seven hooks beside them -- and not a curtain in sight.

The "gang" showers in the locker rooms at Duluth's downtown YMCA are one way to spot the age of the 42-year-old facility: Seven showerheads on a 20-foot tiled wall, seven hooks beside them -- and not a curtain in sight.

Not the shower scenario most folks greet with enthusiasm.

"People want more privacy today, particularly in the women's locker rooms," said YMCA Director Jeff Palmer. "Even in after-school sports nowadays, a lot of kids shower at home."

Dave Schaeffer is one of many employees who can't wait until the Y gets new locker rooms, but his primary reason for wanting those changes isn't about work.

"I have a two-year-old daughter, so I'm glad they're creating family locker rooms," he said.


Still, creating private shower stalls and adding nine additional family and special-needs locker rooms is just one part of the Duluth Area Family YMCA's renovation plans. Other updates include adding youth program space, creating a new entryway that is more secure as well as more handicap accessible, renovating the racquetball courts and swimming pool mechanics, moving the offices to expand the fitness center and even adding a skywalk.

Before construction workers can move in, however, the YMCA needs to raise the money to pay for these improvements. So, earlier this year, the non-profit organization embarked on a $4 million capital campaign to raise the needed funds.

As of Wednesday, the YMCA had raised $2,472,139, or 61.8 percent of the overall goal. At a membership meeting, Palmer announced a $100,000 matching grant from Minnesota Power. Before that, the Ordean Foundation had donated a $100,000 matching grant. The Y's fund-raising team raised $113,000 in two weeks to match that grant. (See News to Use box for donation information.)

Renovations are needed for a couple reasons:

  • First is the simple fact that the building and its systems are aging. Rusting swimming pool pipes line the bowels of the building where the various devices that run the pool have been sort of pieced together over the years as various systems needed to be replaced.

"No matter how well you clean a place, over the years, the high use takes its toll," said Nelle Rhicard, the Budgeteer's tour guide during a recent trip to the facility.

  • Second is a change in culture over the past four decades. The Y is more than swimming lessons and pick-up basketball games today.

Yes, children still take swimming lessons at the Y. People can play basketball in the gym (pickup or league play). But they can also use the myriad exercise machines in the wellness center and take classes in things like yoga and spinning. They can play squash or racquetball. On the top floor, gymnastics equipment and mats are surrounded by a track for walking or running. The Y has a competitive swim team.
In addition to its fitness and athletic offerings, the downtown Y also hosts an after-school and summer program for kids, as well as a childcare facility members can use while they work out. And it's the lead agency for the Mentor Duluth and AmeriCorps programs. The Y also collaborates on programs at 23 other sites around Duluth.

The decision to renovate the downtown YMCA rather than building new somewhere outside the heart of the city -- as has been the trend for a couple decades elsewhere -- wasn't taken lightly.

"For a number of years we were nervous about downtown, and we wondered if we should go the way of so many other Ys that moved outside town," said Palmer, noting that there has been a downtown YMCA in Duluth for more than 125 years. (The first one was located at 18 E. Superior St. in 1882; the current Y was built at 302 W. First St. in 1966.) "But this downtown location is exactly in the middle of town; plus a lot of the kids and families that receive assistance live close to here. And we wanted to stay on the bus route."


However, staying downtown leaves the Y with a lot of design constraints.

"Basically, it's a box and you have to stay inside the box," said Jeff Borling, a Y member and fund-raising team member.

During the remodeling -- the start date depends on when the funds are raised -- the YMCA will remain open. The renovations will be done in phases, to allow the Y to continue operations as usual, though some programs and people may be shuffled around to accommodate


"This is a great project for all of Duluth," Palmer said, adding that membership has grown in recent years. "What the Y does isn't just for Y members, you know: The community benefits in more ways than they know.

"We're way more than a fitness club. ... People can support the Y, even if they have no intention of ever working out down here."

News to use

The YMCA is asking donors to make pledges payable over a five-year period. Gifts in the form of appreciated property and securities are also encouraged. Pledges can be paid monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually. No pledge is too small.


To make a pledge, visit or call 722-4745, ext. 104,

or 722-1999.

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