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Rochester YMCA to close by the end of the month

Y official says the building has become "operationally inefficient."

Rochester Area Family YMCA
Rochester YMCA.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — The Rochester YMCA is closing its facility in Southwest Rochester by the end of the month.

The bombshell announcement was made Tuesday morning, Jan. 4, in an email sent by a Y official.

“Our current Rochester Y facility is oversized and operationally inefficient and has distracted from the Y’s ability to fully respond to community needs,” said Glen Gunderson, president of YMCA of the North in an email sent to members this morning. “The Y’s model of a large fitness center is evolving with a renewed focus on aligning skills, resources and programs that serve all in our community.

Gunderson said the Rochester Y building will close Jan. 31. The fitness and well-being center will be operating until the building closes.

In a separate email, officials cited the pandemic, declining membership and the outdated nature of the facility at 709 First Ave. SW as reasons for closing the building.

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"The Y model of a large fitness center needs to evolve and the YMCA is focused on how best to help all in the community to learn, grow and thrive," said Joan Schimml, the YMCA of the North's senior director of communications, community relations and marketing in an email sent to area media this morning.

"As part of this process, the Y has determined that to meet community needs, expand our mission, focus on providing programs and services in the Rochester community in convenient and accessible locations, we must close our Rochester Family YMCA facility."

The 58-year-old Y building was built in 1964, according to a Rochester Post Bulletin story. The facility cost $1.1 million to build at the south end of First Avenue Southwest, next to Soldiers Field.

“It’s such a loss for the community,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton. “I know it will be missed.”

She said the Y has been a go-to place for young people and families, especially those in the southeast and southwest part of Rochester, for generations. It has also been a sports venue for decades for young and old alike.

Norton said Rochester YMCA officials had high hopes that a waterpark addition would revive membership numbers, but those hopes never materialized. In 2017, members of the Rochester Area YMCA voted to integrate with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.

Norton said everyone, including businesses and nonprofit organizations, are all being challenged to reinvent themselves in a world that continues to be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can’t continue to do things that were historically successful in today’s world,” Norton said. “I think this is a wise response (from the Y), saying, ‘that old model is not working anymore. And this is the time to reinvent themselves.’”

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Mike Lavin, vice president of operations for YMCA of the North, an association that includes Rochester, said the pandemic was the primary reason behind the decision to close the Rochester Y.

“Having an oversized, aging facility was a contributing factor,” Lavin said. “The YMCA in Rochester is not immune to what other YMCAs around the country or other organizations are feeling from the pandemic.”

Lavin said membership at the time the decision was made to close the building is a "fraction" of what it was before the pandemic. In the first year of the pandemic, YMCAs in Lino Lakes, Prior Lake and downtown St. Paul closed.

Lavin emphasized that the “important message” the community needs to hear is that the Y is not leaving the community, although it is leaving a building.

“We’re expanding our mission,” Lavin said. “We’re closing the doors on the building, but we’re expanding our mission and we’re not leaving the community.

"People need to know that our Early Childhood Learning Center will continue to provide care for kids. And we’re going to continue to find ways to meet people in the community where they’re at," he added.

When the Y first opened in the mid-1960s, it faced little competition from other athletic clubs, workout venues and nonprofits. But the landscape changed over the years with the opening of the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester, Dan Abrams Healthy Living Center and the Rochester Athletic Club, not to mention a passel of workout clubs.

Theresa Hornberg, a Stewartville mother of four, had been a member of the Rochester Y since January 2019, primarily because the place worked for her both in terms of price and amenities.

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She couldn't afford a membership at the Rochester Athletic Club because of the price. The Dan Abrams Healthy Living Center was not an option because she is not a Mayo Clinic employee. And Hornberg wasn't interested in being a member of one of the shoe-box-sized workout facilities around town.

Hornberg said that she drove into Rochester at least once a week to exercise, while leaving two of her children at the Y's drop-in child care. Even if she didn't workout, the childcare option gave her a reprieve for an hour or so "where I'm not just mom."

She said there were signs that the Y was struggling.

"I was a little bit surprised that they were able to stay open. It didn't seem like they were nearly as crowded as before (the pandemic)," Hornberg said.

Norton said she was already fielding calls from residents wondering how the land and building will be used.

“Will it be the (University of Rochester Minnesota) to use that as their sports complex? Will it be the city to use it as part of the park system? To my knowledge, there are no answers (at this point),” Norton said.

Signs that the Y’s operations were being disrupted emerged in the early months of the pandemic. That’s when the Y announced that it was pulling out of a project with the University of Minnesota Rochester to build an all-purpose building as part of new campus in southwest Rochester.

Officials said that “to honor the history and legacy of the Rochester Y facility,” a community celebration will be held the weekend of Jan. 28-30.

The letter states that the closure does not affect the Rochester YMCA Early Childhood Learning Center, which will remain open. The Y Tots program will be moved to the center beginning Jan. 19.

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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